After two weeks, 356 people rescued in the central Mediterranean may finally disembark

Rescued people look out from the deck of the search and rescue ship, the Ocean Viking. After four days of life saving rescue missions the Ocean Viking headed north to find a place of safety for all 356 people on board.
Mediterranean Sea 2019 © Hannah Wallace Bowman/MSF
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AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK, August 23, 2019—After being stranded for 14 days at sea with 356 rescued people on board, the Ocean Viking, a ship operated by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE, has finally been offered a safe place for disembarkation in Malta.

While a coalition of countries has worked together on this response, European governments must stop prolonged delays and ad hoc negotiations over rescued people, and urgently agree on a mechanism for disembarkation of people rescued at sea.

Jay Berger, MSF project coordinator on the Ocean Viking, gave the following statement:

"We are relieved this long ordeal for the 356 people we have on board is finally over. Was it necessary to impose two weeks of excruciating wait for rescued people to be disembarked? These are people who have fled from desperate circumstances in their home countries and suffered horrific abuses in Libya.

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"We've treated the war-wounded who were trapped on the front line of the conflict in Tripoli and seen the scars of those who lived through the Tajoura detention center airstrikes. We've talked to the survivors of shipwrecks and interceptions. We've heard stories of brutal beatings, electrocution, torture including by melting plastic and sexual violence—with even children not exempt from these horrors. European states must take a hard look at the role they are playing in trapping people in these situations.

"It is sad that we have to repeat the same message to European leaders time and time again with no change. They can no longer claim ignorance to the disaster unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea. After hundreds of deaths at sea and countless stories of suffering, it's time for European leaders to recognize this humanitarian disaster for what it is and finally step up with humane solutions—starting with the setting up of a mechanism to allow swift disembarkation.

"After [this] disembarkation we will have a port call to resupply and change crew. As long as people are drowning and continue to flee Libya, we remain committed to saving lives at sea."

MSF is calling on European states to:

  • Put in place a sustainable and predictable disembarkation system that safeguards survivor's rights.
  • End their political and material support to the system of forced returns to Libya where refugees and migrants are placed in arbitrary and inhumane detention. People fleeing Libya simply cannot be returned there.
  • Respond to the urgent need for proactive and sufficient European search and rescue capacity.
  • Stop punitive actions against aid organizations trying to provide lifesaving assistance in lieu of a government-led response to this crisis.

Information on recent rescues:

Within 10 hours of patrolling the Libyan rescue region, the Ocean Viking was alerted to the first boat in distress on August 9. What followed was four days of consecutive rescue operations with 356 men, women, and children—the youngest just one year old—brought on board in four separate rescues. During that time, a rescue vessel operated by another aid organization, Open Arms, was stranded waiting for disembarkation with 147 people on board. While the Ocean Viking and Open Arms remained stranded at sea this week, with no other dedicated European search and rescue vessels there have been new reports of more tragic shipwrecks and avoidable deaths.

The circumstances surrounding the rescues and the inadequate response of authorities, be it Libyan, Maltese, Italian or European, show how confused the situation at sea remains while states are not putting their duty to save lives first. Despite consistently attempting to contact the Libyan Rescue Coordination Center since receiving the first distress alert, the Ocean Viking did not receive a response until well after the rescue—offering for the Ocean Viking to disembark people in Libya, contrary to international law.

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Given the lack of a place of safety from the Libyan authorities, the Ocean Viking then requested that the Maltese and Italian maritime authorities take on coordination and support finding a place of safety, as the next closest coordination centers able to assist. Two weeks later, and after first refusing coordination, the Maltese Prime Minister announced today that Malta would transfer all 356 rescued people from the Ocean Viking outside of Maltese territorial waters to the Armed Forces of Malta vessels and disembark them in Malta. It is expected that all of the rescued people will be relocated to other European Union member states: France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Romania.