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Mediterranean: European governments must assign a place of safety for rescued people
A total of 141 people were rescued on Friday by the search and rescue vessel Aquarius, chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Both organisations are now calling upon European governments to assign a place of safety so that rescued people can disembark and Aquarius can continue proving urgent humanitarian assistance at sea.
On Friday 10 August, Aquarius rescued 25 people found adrift on a small wooden boat with no engine on board. It is believed they had been at sea for nearly 35 hours.
Later that day, Aquarius spotted a second overcrowded wooden boat with 116 people onboard, including 67 unaccompanied minors.
"It seems the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake. Ships might be unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety.”
More than 70% of those rescued originate from Somalia and Eritrea. While their medical condition is stable, for now, many are extremely weak and malnourished. Many also report that they were held in inhumane conditions in Libya.
Aquarius has received formal permission from the Maltese authorities to enter the port of Valletta. MSF is relieved that a place of safety has been found for the 141 vulnerable people rescued on the Mediterranean. We welcome the news that Germany, France, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain have also agreed to share responsibility in a coordinated European response.
People must not be returned to Libya
During both rescue operations, Aquarius informed all relevant authorities of its activities, including the Italian, Maltese, and Tunisian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs), as well as the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) which stated it was the coordinating authority for the rescues.
The Libyan JRCC informed the Aquarius that it would not provide a place of safety and instructed Aquarius to request a place of safety from another coordination centre.
In any case, Libya is not recognised as a place of safety. People rescued in the international waters of the Mediterranean must not be returned to Libya, but should be taken to a place of safety in line with international and maritime law.
As such, the Aquarius is now heading north to request the closest place of safety from another rescue coordination centre.
“We are now following the instructions of the JRCC and will duly contact other rescue coordination centres for a place of safety to disembark the rescued people we have on board”, said Nick Romaniuk, Search and Rescue Coordinator for SOS MEDITERRANEE.
“What is of utmost importance is that the survivors are brought to a place of safety without delay, where their basic needs can be met and where they can be protected from abuse.”
“European governments have put all their efforts into propping up the Libyan JRCC, however, Friday’s events show that they do not have the capacity to fully coordinate a rescue,” said Aloys Vimard, MSF’s Project Coordinator onboard Aquarius.
“A rescue is not complete until there is disembarkation in a place of safety. The Libyan JRCC clearly told us they would not provide this.
“Additionally, they did not inform Aquarius of boats in distress which they were aware of, despite the fact we were in the vicinity and offered our assistance. It was extremely fortunate that we spotted these boats in distress ourselves.”
A disturbing development
In a disturbing development, rescued people told our teams that they encountered five different ships which did not offer them assistance before they were rescued by Aquarius.
“It seems the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake. Ships might be unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety,” said Vimard.
“Policies designed to prevent people from reaching Europe at all costs are resulting in more suffering and forcing those who are already vulnerable to take even riskier journeys to safety.”
MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE remain extremely concerned about European policies that hinder the provision of humanitarian assistance and which have resulted in a skyrocketing number of deaths at sea in recent months.
The Aquarius is now one of only two remaining humanitarian search and rescue vessels on the Central Mediterranean.
The criminalisation and obstruction of humanitarian organisations reflect the larger problem of a broken European asylum system and the failure of the EU member states to relocate asylum seekers who arrive in Europe.
MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE call again on all European governments and their relevant maritime rescue authorities to recognise the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and grant quick access to the nearest place of safety and to facilitate, instead of impede, much-needed lifesaving humanitarian assistance on the Central Mediterranean.