Critical Risk of More Deaths in the Central Mediterranean in Absence of Search and Rescue Operations

Central Mediterranean – Sixteen boats in distress have been rescued within five days by the Geo Barents, a search and rescue (SAR) ship operated by MSF, and the Ocean Viking a SAR ship chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE, in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The week before, Sea-Watch 3 rescued five boats in distress at sea with a total of 444 survivors. Without the presence of civil SAR assets in the central Mediterranean, the men, women and children rescued during these lifesaving operations would have been left to a tragic fate in international waters off Libya – the world’s deadliest sea migration route.

“We currently have 659 people on board the Geo Barents, which is above the vessel capacity. We kept receiving alerts that were left unanswered or spotting boats in distress from our bridge, and it’s our legal and moral duty not to let these people drown,” says Juan Matias Gil, MSF SAR representative.

The disengagement of European maritime capacity from search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, as well as delays in assigning a place of safety for disembarkation, have undermined the integrity and capacity of the SAR system, and therefore the ability to save lives.

Despite the fact that, as prescribed by maritime law, we systematically seek coordination for our operations, the Libyan maritime authorities almost never respond, neglecting their legal obligation to coordinate assistance. Furthermore, when they intervene and intercept boats in distress, Libyan maritime authorities systematically forcibly return survivors to Libya, which cannot be considered as a place of safety according to the UN.

Meanwhile, despite the critical lack of adequate SAR assets in this stretch of the sea, people continue to flee Libya via the central Mediterranean, and risk their lives to seek safety. During summer, when weather conditions are the most favourable to attempt such a dangerous journey, departures from Libya are more frequent and a large SAR fleet is therefore required.

Since the beginning of summer, we have conducted three missions at sea. Unfortunately, the first rescue ended tragically, with nearly 30 people missing and one woman who did not make it. Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative

“Since the beginning of the summer season, we have conducted three missions at sea. Unfortunately, the first rescue ended tragically, with nearly 30 people missing and one woman who did not make it,” says Gil. “The other two missions have been very intense, with six rescues in twelve hours and 11 rescues in 72 hours, saving a total of 974 people.”

While Sea-Watch 3 disembarked 438 people in Taranto, Italy on 30 July, and Ocean Viking disembarked the 387 men, women and children rescued between 24-25 July in Salerno, Italy on 1 August, the Geo Barents is still waiting for a safe place of disembarkation for the survivors rescued up to seven days ago.

“Keeping survivors stranded at sea for days waiting to disembark in a place of safety is an additional violence imposed on already extremely vulnerable people,” says Xavier Lauth, SOS MEDITERRANEE director of operations.

“Survivors rescued by the Ocean Viking in the past six years have been recounting harrowing stories of violence and abuse to our teams. The last and only hope they carry is to flee Libya, which they often call “hell on earth”, via the sea, regardless of the risks,” says Lauth.

“The removal of adequate and competent European search and rescue services in international waters off Libya has proven to be deadly and ineffective in preventing dangerous crossings.”

“While European authorities are not willing to fulfil their duty to rescue people at sea, they are also delaying the disembarkation of rescued people by NGOs,” says Mattea Weihe, SEA-WATCH spokesperson.

“This unnecessary waiting for days exhausts the rescued people: they have survived the Mediterranean, but instead of finding safety, they have to wait for days at the closed gates of Europe for their human rights to be respected,” says Weihe.

SOS MEDITERRANEE, MSF and SEA-WATCH demand that European member and associated states provide an adequate state-led dedicated and proactive search and rescue fleet in the central Mediterranean, and a fast and adequate response to all distress calls, as well as a predictable disembarkation mechanism for survivors.

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