European leaders must urgently allow disembarkation of 104 people rescued at sea

MSF team members help rescued people remove their life jackets as they come on board Ocean Viking on October 18.
Mediterranean Sea 2019 © Stefan Dold/MSF
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October 29 update: After 11 days stranded at sea, the Ocean Viking is heading to Pozzallo, Italy, to disembark rescued people, following an agreement among France, Germany, and Italy to relocate them.

AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK, October 28, 2019—The organizations SOS MEDITERRANEE and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called today on European states to facilitate the urgent assignment of a port to disembark people rescued in the central Mediterranean 10 days ago and establish a predictable and coordinated mechanism for such disembarkations, avoiding unnecessary delays.

The Ocean Viking, a rescue ship chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with MSF, is still awaiting a place of safety to disembark 104 people rescued in international waters off Libya on October 18.

"In the past four months, several European leaders met on three occasions [in Paris, Malta and Luxembourg], showing a will to establish a temporary disembarkation and distribution mechanism for people rescued in the central Mediterranean," said Louise Guillaumat, deputy director of SOS MEDITERRANEE's operations. "Yet today, 104 survivors are once again left in limbo on the deck of a rescue ship with no solution for their disembarkation in sight, adding to their suffering after being rescued from distress at sea. Europe can and should show more solidarity towards its coastal States."

Among those rescued by the Ocean Viking on October 18 are two pregnant women and 41 children under the age of 18, including a two-month-old. The vast majority of minors report to be travelling unaccompanied, without a parent or guardian. Many report to have been trapped in Libya for several years, with some saying they fled because of fighting that began in April.

"Every patient seen in the MSF clinic onboard has reported to have suffered or been witness to violence or sexual violence at some point in their journey," said Michael Fark, MSF head of mission. "Women have told our medical team they fled their home countries because of forced marriage, female genital mutilation or sexual violence. It is unacceptable that for 10 days now these vulnerable people have not only had to endure being stranded in the open sea, but also the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen to them. This prolonged and unnecessary time at sea must come to an end. We urge European leaders to live up to their principles and allow the survivors to finally disembark to safety."

As the Ocean Viking remains stranded, new cases of boats in distress have been reported in the central Mediterranean, with two rescues conducted by other aid organizations' rescue ships over the weekend. Rescue ships must not be delayed or hindered from their lifesaving activities due to unnecessary standoffs at sea, SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF said. At least 692 people died attempting to cross the central Mediterranean this year alone.

A meeting of European Union (EU) ministers in Luxembourg in early October reportedly led to an agreement on a six-month "pilot project" involving seven member states to start a disembarkation system based on respect for international law. Shortly after this meeting, the Ocean Viking was able to disembark 176 people in Taranto, Italy, within 26 hours of the rescue. Yet, less than a week later, the Ocean Viking is again left stranded without a place of safety to disembark rescued people.

"The situation currently faced by the Ocean Viking shows how fragile the announced EU disembarkation pilot project is," Guillaumat said. "This situation has lasted for too long. Returning to the one-off and ad hoc approaches of the past 16 months would be a step backwards. Unnecessary standoffs will only end if a broader coalition of willing European countries come together to support countries of disembarkation without further delay."

Details on the latest rescue

On October 18, the Ocean Viking rescued 104 people from a boat in distress, 50 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The boat in distress was spotted through binoculars.

The Ocean Viking requested a place of safety from the competent maritime authorities soon afterward. The Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) appointed the port of Tripoli, Libya, as a "Place of Safety" on the day of the rescue, which the Ocean Viking could not accept, because no port in Libya can be considered safe according to international law.

On October 20, the Ocean Viking requested a place of safety from the Italian and Maltese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCCs), asking them to coordinate with the MRCCs most able to assist to facilitate disembarkation as early as possible. No place of safety has been assigned to the Ocean Viking since then.