[ 20. Jun 2018 ]

Developments in the Central Mediterranean Sea

Blick vom Rettungsschiff ins Meer - Foto: Hara Kaminara, SOS MEDITERRANEE

With nearly 4,000 arrivals, May has been the month with the second-highest number of crossings this year (January: 4189 arrivals). So far in 2018, 13,706 people have crossed the Central Mediterranean.


Especially toward the end of May, the numbers have increased dramatically, with about 2600 people arriving in Italy between the 25th and 29th of May alone. In early May, we received once again disturbing news from Libya. MSF reported of about 800 people being held in a detention centre in Zuwarah, many of whom had been detained for several months, without access to adequate food or water. A few weeks later, MSF reported about the attempt by more than one hundred migrants who had been held captive by traffickers west of Bani Walid, Libya, to escape: “They were shot at while attempting to flee. Survivors told MSF of at least 15 people were dead and said at least 40 people (majority are women) were left behind. Some of the survivors told MSF teams that they had been held captive for up to 3 years. Scarred bodies, visible marks of electrical burns, and old infected wounds give an idea as to the ordeal they have suffered.”[8]

The NGOs conducting search and rescue operations at sea have confirmed the poor state that people are in when being rescued onto their vessels. Some, however, do not reach the NGO boats as they are forcefully intercepted by the Libyan coastguards which are sponsored and supported by the EU. On the 5th of May, for example, Sea-Watch witnessed one of these pull-back operations by the Libyan authorities, who abducted people at high sea and returned them into captivity in Libya. On the same day, Sea-Watch spotted two half-sunken rubber dinghies north of Zuwarah – it is unclear what happened to their passengers. A day later, SOS-Mediterranee and MSF’s rescue vessel, the Aquarius, also witnessed a pull-back operation in international waters. At the sight of the Libyan coastguards approaching, people jumped into the water in order to be rescued by the NGO boat, but the Aquarius was not allowed to assist them. On the same day, the rescue vessel of Proactiva rescued 105 people on board of its Astral vessel, and did not allow the Libyan coastguards to return them into torturous conditions. As a response, Italy delayed the necessary transfer of the exhausted group of travellers to a larger vessel.[9]

These Italian tactics of delay in granting permission to assist, disembark or transfer have become more common. In late May, the Italian authorities deliberately pulled out the Aquarius rescue vessel from the most dangerous maritime area, ordering the vessel to return to Sicily to disembark a group of 69 people, although it sought to stay out in order to conduct more needed rescue operations. As SOS-Mediterranee stated: “With only 69 people on board, the Aquarius has the capacity to comfortably accommodate hundreds more. What is more, an Italian coastguard vessel with large capacity was nearby, and the Aquarius emphasised the possibility to transfer the 69 people to allow her to remain in the patrolling area. Yet, she was instructed to return to Sicily with the 69 persons and depart from the SAR zone immediately, having been informed there were enough assets in the zone, although in reality, all other humanitarian rescue ships were overwhelmed and had reached their maximum capacity.”[10]

Other SAR vessels, such as the See-Fuchs asset had to follow orders that endangered the people they had just rescued. Without the capacity to care for the 100 rescued, they wanted to transfer them to other vessels with the adequate means and space for them. They were, however, not allowed to do so and were ordered to bring them all the way to Italy, which endangered the livelihood of the rescued and the crew.[11] Also in the night to the 8th of June, Sea-Watch reported about an untenable situation, when they were carrying more than two hundred rescued people for over 60 hours on their vessel, while, at the same time, the See-Fuchs was also carrying many on board, unable to adequately care for them. Only with great delay did the Italian authorities send coastguard vessels to assist, and ordered the Sea-Watch crew to transfer the people to Sicily. With the new Italian government in charge, we fear that these tactics of delay and orders to vacate the deadliest SAR zone off Libya, will become even more common. We also fear that NGOs will more often face the situation where they are blackmailed into handing the rescued back to Libyan forces, as was the case in late March when the Aquarius could only negotiate the evacuation of particularly vulnerable people, and had to hand over the others to the Libyan authorities.[12] With the escalation on the 10th of June, with the Aquarius disallowed from embarking in Italy, the worst fears seem to become reality, but at the same time, the backlash from civil society actors against the stance of the Italian government offers some hope that Salvini’s deterrence plans will not remain unopposed.

With the securitisation of the Libyan route, other routes may become frequented more than before. Recently, several interceptions in Tunisian waters have been reported, and the shipwreck off the island of Kerkennah in Tunisia on the 2nd of June, the largest in terms of fatalities this year, may speak to that. With about 2,000 Tunisians reaching Italy via the sea this year, Tunisians are the most common nationality of border crossers through the Central Mediterranean, closely followed by Eritreans. In recent years, Europe’s restrictive visa system has made it virtually impossible for Tunisians who are not from the political or economic elite, to reach Europe by safe and legal means and paths. Unbearable inflation, lack of perspectives, regional insecurity and a multiplicity of other reasons are increasingly pushing Tunisia’s youth to take the dangerous route of the sea. In the shipwreck off Tunisia, which has led to the sacking of Tunisia’s Interior Minister, it has been reported that about 100 of the 180 passengers were Tunisians.[13] Given that many disappeared, the real number of fatalities, and their identities, may never come to light. For each of these lost individuals there is a devastated family, a community torn apart and uncountable grieving friends.








This article is part of: Alarm Phone 6 Week Report, 30 April - 10 June 2018, published on June 12, 2018 in ::