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Jérémie Lusseau / SOS MEDITERRANEE

Understand the operations

Areas of operation

The Ocean Viking operates along the world’s deadliest maritime migration route, in the central Mediterranean, navigating through International waters that span from North Africa—primarily Libya, but also Tunisia and Algeria—to Italy.

Maritime conventions divide the sea into distinct zones with differing legal jurisdictions. Within approximately 12 Nautical Miles (approximately 22 kilometers) from the coast lies the territorial waters of the Coastal State, over which it exercises absolute sovereignty. The Ocean Viking never enters Libyan territorial waters.

Beyond the span of 12 Nautical Miles lie International waters, where any vessel can navigate freely. The Ocean Viking conducts patrols approximately 50 kilometers off the Libyan coast, where the majority of boats in distress are reported.

SOS MEDITERRANEE Rescue Operations

Search and Rescue (SAR) zones

A SAR (search and rescue) zone is a delineated maritime area , where search and rescue services are provided by a nearby Coastal State, starting with the coordination of SAR operations.

The SAR zone extends over both territorial and International waters; emphasizing a zone of responsibility rather than an area conferring extensive rights or authority to the state. Within its SAR zone, the Coastal State must take charge of and coordinate sea rescue operations, and find a safe place to disembark survivors.

Today, the majority of rescue operations carried out by the Ocean Viking take place in the Libyan SAR zone. Prior to 2018, this SAR zone did not exist and the coordination of rescue operations in the region was by managed by the Italian maritime authorities by default. However, since 2018, a Libyan SAR zone has been created, and authority has been transferred to the Libyan coastguard.

This new system is marked by numerous malfunctions that significantly impact the operations of SOS MEDITERRANEE and other vessels or aircraft involved in rescue missions.

The Libyan coastguard is not fulfilling its responsibility to coordinate rescue operations under maritime law: 

1. They do not pass on calls from boats in distress to nearby vessels likely to be able to offer their assistance;

2. They almost never respond to requests from NGO vessels;

3. They are unable to designate a safe port in which to disembark survivors, since Libya cannot be considered a place of safety under maritime law.

Consequently, since 2018, SOS MEDITERRANEE teams have received minimal support from the relevant maritime authorities in their rescue mission. Instead, the various NGOs present in the area work together to locate and rescue boats in distress.

Transparency of operations

All instructions from the ship and those received by the relevant maritime authorities, as well as their non-responses, are transcribed as quickly as possible in the online logbook. All information relating to an operation is also recorded, from the receipt of the alert to the disembarkation of the survivors.


Rescue stages

As soon as a boat in distress is located or reported, a race against time takes place at sea.

Two or three lifeboats approach the boat in distress. The first priority is to calm the occupants, to avoid panic which could cause the boat to capsize. A multilingual cultural mediator reassures them and then gives them instructions. Life jackets are distributed, and the most vulnerable individuals (people in medical emergency situations, then women and children) are transferred to the ship in lifeboats. This is followed by a series of shuttles to bring all survivors safely back on board. In some cases, the rescue ends with the transfer of the bodies of those who died during the crossing. The inflatable boats are then destroyed to prevent them from being used again.

Depending on conditions, each operation can take from one to seven hours.