Human Rights at Sea : Mediterranean Migrant Crisis

In the days following Easter 2015, more than 1200 migrants and refugees lost their lives in the Central Mediterranean Sea across a handful of incidents spanning just one week. 800 people were reported missing from a single capsized boat, to this day one of the deadliest shipwrecks recorded in Mediterranean history.

migrant boat seen departing Libya across the Central Mediterranean in February 2015. Photo Credit: Reuters

These harrowing reports shocked the world, and our collective consciousness, into prompt action; both State actors and civil society organisations rapidly initiated search and rescue (SAR) operations  in response to this catastrophic and unprecedented loss of life on our shores. It was at this point the Central Mediterranean corridor became known as the deadliest border in the world.

Just five years later, this collective consciousness has tragically regressed; the days over Easter weekend (10th-12thApril) were a hive of activity and tragedy in the Central Mediterranean corridor between Italy, Malta and Libya.

On the evening of 7thApril, Italian Ministers for the Interior, Health, Infrastructure and Foreign Affairs co-signed an unprecedented emergency decree declaring that “for the entire duration of the health emergency, due to the outbreak of coronavirus, Italian ports cannot be classified as ‘safe places’ for the landing of people rescued from boats flying a foreign flag” 

This announcement, specifically impeding civil society rescue ships at a time when State SAR capacity has been withdrawn, came just one day after the ship Alan Kurdi, operated by NGO Sea-Eye, announced the rescues of 68 and 82 people over two successive operations .

In the 24 hours that followed, Libya and Malta both swiftly entered this unprecedented position, with the latter announcing in a statement to the European Commission; “it is considered that the Maltese authorities are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants on board of any boats, ships or other vessels, nor to ensure the availability of a “safe place” on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea 

cruiser Europa II, complete with political banner, has been repurposed by the Maltese authorities to hold rescued migrants outside territorial waters. Photo Credit: Monique Agius/Newsbook

As these measures were being drafted under the pretext of Covid-19 public health grounds, Civil Society Organisation AlarmPhone notified the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres in Malta, Italy and Libya respectively of two more migrant boats in distress, carrying approximately 150 people, in international waters.


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With each passing hour the risk of exposure, lost contact, or worse, capsize increased. Despite this, and mounting public pressure to intervene, no assistance or reassurance was provided from the Italian or Maltese authorities for over 48 hours, after which it emerged that one boat had been intercepted and returned to Tripoli, as part of a larger group of 280 people.

As the GNA Government in Tripoli assessed the public health implications of their migrant detention policy, this group was made to remain onboard the Libyan Coastguard vessel Ras Al Jadr,until nearby shelling eventually allowed them to flee the harbour. International Organisations operating in Libya have since been unable to account for the safety and whereabouts of everyone in that group.

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The situation for migrants in Libya remains grave; ongoing hostilities, systematic abuse, disappearances and exploitation have now been compounded by the coronavirus outbreak, further restricting humanitarian access and the flow of information. 

Providing Food and Water to Migrants Stuck on the Coast Guard Vessel in Tripoli. Photo Credit IOM/ 2020

The second known boat was eventually disembarked in Malta amidst reports of a violent altercation between migrants and sailors from the Armed Forces of Malta. While the facts of this event remain unclear, the legal and moral implications of purposely withdrawing SAR capacity from the world’s deadliest migratory route are unequivocal. The Maltese government has since been accused of exploiting the COVID-19 crisis  to neglect SAR responsibilities under international law, resulting in an ongoing magisterial enquiry.

With no solution in sight, the Central Mediterranean became increasingly crowded over Easter weekend culminating in four known migrant boats, carrying approximately 280 people, in and around Malta’s Search and Rescue Region (SRR) by Easter Saturday.

Repeated calls for intervention fell on deaf ears, despite the heavy mobilisation of Frontex, Armed Forces of Malta and Italian Guardia Costiera surveillance assets to monitor their movements. By this stage, AlarmPhone had lost contact with all but one of the boats, and the authorities were unresponsive to requests for updates or assistance.

The Libyan Coastguard in Tripoli also refused to engage, declaring that “The Libyan Coastguard now only does coordination work because of COVID-19, we can’t do any rescue action, but we are in contact with Italy and Malta.

Miraculously, two of the four migrant boats, carrying 101 and 77 respectively, traversed the height of Malta’s Search and Rescue Region, landing autonomously in Sicily; a previously unrecorded crossing for rubber boats carrying so many people 

Another boat was rescued on Monday 13thApril following a hasty detour of the Basque Civil Society vessel Aita Mari which had originally been returning home to Spain and was therefore unequipped to host so many people onboard. Aita Mari carried no medical capabilities and only enough provisions for seven crewmembers.

Continued surveillance by Frontex aircraft uncovered the remains of a capsized rubber boat in the waters North of Tripoli, leading to widespread concern about the fate of the final reported boat. According to Frontex officials, the lack of debris and outboard motor on the site of the wreck pointed to evidence of a previous, unconnected rescue . This was later confirmed on the night of Monday 13thApril when the fourth and final missing boat was finally sighted.

Malta’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) promptly sent out a Mayday relay  to all nearby ships encouraging a rescue operation but making clear that Malta would not provide a place of safety for those onboard, and so a prolonged standoff at sea would inevitably follow.

This counterproductive messaging not only disincentivises seafarers from their fundamental legal obligations, but also actively penalises those who provide assistance by burdening them with the weight of State politics.

The commercial ferry Ivan arrived on the scene but was unable to safely approach the rubber boat due to the agitated sea-state and their relative size-difference. Ivan instead maneuvered to a safe distance and monitored the situation while a fishing vessel was redirected by the Maltese Rescue Coordination Centre to take the people onboard.

The following morning 56 people, of which five were now deceased, were finally disembarked in Tripoli six days after their first distress call was communicated to the authorities.

During disembarkation the survivors revealed that seven more people had lost their lives the night before when they had jumped into the cold waters in a desperate attempt to reach passing ships. They were later identified by Italian newspaper Avvenire but their bodies were not recovered.

It transpired that the fishing vessels taking part in the rescue operation had in fact departed from Malta and given false details to the Libyan authorities in a bid to mask their identity and origin.

Three fishing vessels with alleged connections to the criminal underworld  had been dispatched by the Maltese government with the objective of discreetly returning this group of people to Libya . The Italian authorities and Frontex appeared to be unaware of this operation as they continued searching for this boat long after the operation had been concluded .

Press – release 

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