Today the search and rescue ship Sea-Watch 4 was assigned a place of safety in Palermo, Italy—11 days after completing its first rescue operation and 10 days after first requesting a place of safety. There are currently 353 rescued people on board the ship run by the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in partnership with Sea-Watch, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that conducts search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea.
MSF relaunched its lifesaving search and rescue operations on August 15, departing from the port of Burriana, Spain, for international waters off the coast of Libya—a four-day journey. Between August 22 and 24, the Sea-Watch 4 conducted three rescue operations, rescuing 202 people, including 56 children.
On August 29, following instructions from Maltese authorities, the Sea-Watch 4 assisted the only other search and rescue boat in the Central Mediterranean Sea—a ship called Louise Michel funded by the artist Banksy—taking on an additional 152 people.
Here, MSF humanitarian affairs advisor Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui explains the situation in the Central Mediterranean and what she has witnessed over the last few weeks.
What is happening in the Central Mediterranean Sea right now?
The situation at sea is dire. In the last 11 days, we have witnessed how European Union (EU) states are condemning people to drown and blocking action to save them. Nearly 400 people have died in the Central Mediterranean Sea in 2020. It’s hard to understand how this can be allowed to happen. But it does.
Two weeks ago, 45 people lost their lives in a shipwreck. A few days ago, people crowded onto a rubber dinghy saw four of their group drown. Nearly 400 people have been left stranded at sea waiting for a port of safety—some for days, some for weeks. Twenty-seven people rescued on the orders of Malta by a commercial oil tanker, the Etienne, have been stranded at sea for nearly four weeks.
This is the result of deliberate policies to prevent NGOs and other actors from saving lives. In recent months, Malta and Italy have been ignoring distress calls from rubber boats and delaying rescues in areas of the Mediterranean Sea that fall under their responsibility. But they are not the only EU states looking the other way.
The failure of states has forced NGOs to try to fill the gap, setting up search and rescue operations. But, due to the impounding of ships and unclear administrative blockages, the Sea-Watch 4 and the Louise Michel are currently the only search and rescue vessels active in the Central Mediterranean.
What has the Sea-Watch 4 experienced since launching operations?
What we have seen is a disgrace. Since returning to sea we have been consistently confronted by states, chiefly Malta and Italy, using dirty tactics, ignoring distress calls at sea, and passing the buck to commercial ships or NGO search and rescue ships.
We carried out our first rescue within hours of arriving in international waters, off the coast of Libya, on August 22. This rescue was followed by two more rescues in the following days. Despite repeated requests for a place of safety, we were not offered one.
States are now instructing commercial and NGO vessels to assist in rescues, and then refusing to provide a place of safety. Last weekend, August 29 and 30, Malta instructed the Sea-Watch 4 to transfer rescued people from the Louise Michel, bringing the total number of rescued people on board [our ship] to 353. The Maltese maritime authorities then proceeded to ignore our requests to be allocated a place of safety.
On the evening of Monday, August 31, we were finally notified that we will be able to disembark 353 rescued people in Palermo, Italy–the closest place of safety.