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Dhaka Tribune

Lost at sea: New constraints hinder Mediterranean rescuers

Last year was the deadliest stretch for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea since 2017

Update : 31 Mar 2024, 09:00 PM

On a bright sunny day in March, the search-and-rescue vessel Life Support set off on a 30-hour journey from the Sicilian port of Catania to Malta's search-and-rescue zone. The boat is run by the Milan-based humanitarian organization Emergency.

Sailing down, crew members ran drills — what to do, for example, if a migrant boat capsized and people were drowning, or how to save people who could not move their legs. Afterward, in the ship's living room, they discussed how to behave if the Libyan coast guard approached the boat before or during a rescue.

Instructions differed based on whether the coast guard had drawn firearms or was merely "hanging around" in an attempt to intimidate the vessel.

Just hours later, elsewhere in the Mediterranean, that threat was borne out. Members of the Libyan coast guard attempted to "forcibly board" the search-and-rescue vessel Geo Barents, run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which had departed Italy shortly before Life Support. For two hours, the coast guard "aggressively threatened survivors and MSF staff with arrest and forcible removal to Libya," Doctors Without Borders said.

Nicola Selva Bonino, a Life Support sea rescuer, told DW the Libyan coast guard has approached the Life Support around five times in the year it's been in operation.

Libya's coast guard is partly financed and supplied by the European Union. Since 2017, the bloc has allocated more than €57 million to help Libyan authorities patrol their border.

NGOs replace government vessels

In the eight years since the so-called "migrant crisis" of 2015, EU ships have halted nearly all operations in the search-and-rescue zones between the southern coasts of Europe and the coasts of North Africa. Ships like the Life Support have taken their place.

Critics of NGO sea rescue operations have said they offer a "pull factor" for irregular migrants looking to enter EU countries whose asylum systems are already overwhelmed. Migrants who set off to sea — and particularly those who embark unseaworthy vessels that could not feasibly make the entire journey on their own — place their bets in getting rescued by European NGOs, they said.

No research has conclusively proven this is the case, but it represents one of the main arguments against sea rescue missions debated in Europe's halls of government.

'Really easy' to miss boats in the dark

Shortly after entering the Maltese search-and-rescue zone in the early hours of March 16, the Life Support learned about a migrant vessel in distress 35 nautical miles away.

The ship located migrants seven hours later, in a white fiberglass boat with a broken motor overloaded with 71 people, mostly young Bangladeshi men, but also some Eritreans, an Egyptian and a young woman. Many had spent months in Libyan prisons before the journey, they told DW, showing bruises on their backs where they said they had been whipped by prison guards.

"The prison, it was so hard," said an Eritrean migrant named Mehretab. "You only eat once a day. If you're dead, if you're alive, they don't care."

After setting off from the Libyan city of Tajura, they had been at sea without food or drinking water for the past 20 hours. By the time the Life Support located them, they said they were certain they were about to die.

Shortly after staff facilitated the rescue that night, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, or MRCC, a Rome-based control center that governs sea rescue operations in and near Italian waters, instructed the Life Support to start trying to locate a second boat in distress.

It's possible this was the vessel migrants said left just 15 minutes before theirs from Tajura. The boat held their friends, mostly people from sub-Saharan Africa, including women and children, said passengers. Mehretab said the boat contained Eritreans he had lived with for the past two months in Libya.

Staff were told the boat could be as close as 5 nautical miles, or around 30 minutes, away. But after searching until around 4 a.m., the mission was called off by the MRCC, and the vessel was instructed to go to Italy's northern port of Ravenna — four days further sailing.

Life Support staff asked if they could keep looking for the boat until daylight to ensure they weren't missing something. The night had been clear but dark, with no moonshine.

"It could have been really easy to pass by and not see it," said Anabel Montes Mier, Emergency's search-and-rescue operations manager.

The control center denied the request, and did not explain why. It has not answered DW's requests for comment on the decision.

Rescue boats detained

If the Life Support vessel had chosen not to follow this command, it's likely it would have been detained upon arrival to Italy. Indeed, three search-and-rescue vessels were detained during Life Support's mission: SOS Humanity's Humanity 1, the Sea Watch 5 and Sea Eye 4.

The MSF boat, Geo Barents, which landed in a northern Italian port on March 20, was also detained. Italian authorities kept it in port for 20 days for "failing to comply" with instructions issued by the Libyan coast guard.

Four days after the rescue, the Life Support team still had no information to give the migrants who asked what happened to the second boat. It's possible but unlikely that its passengers successfully steered it to the island of Lampedusa, the closest European territory to Libya and the goal for most migrant boats that cross the Mediterranean.

It could also have been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard. Or it could have sunk into the sea.

Italy's new law makes Mediterranean crossing 'even more dangerous'

Rescue missions in the Mediterranean haven't always looked like this. There was a time when ships came and left from Sicily, a little over a day of sailing from the search-and-rescue zone, and didn't return to land until they had rescued as many boats in distress as they could.

But at the start of 2023, Italy implemented new legislation requiring ships to sail to assigned ports, often days away, immediately after facilitating a single sea rescue.

For example, Life Support's mission could have started on Friday afternoon and ended Monday morning if the ship had been assigned a Sicilian port. Instead, it lasted nearly a week.

Three days after Italy's government signed its 2023 law, 18 organizations facilitating sea rescue in the Mediterranean published a statement warning it would cause more deaths on the already dangerous migration route.

The law "will reduce rescue capacities at sea and thereby make the central Mediterranean, one of the world’s deadliest migration routes, even more dangerous," they wrote. "The decree ostensibly targets [search-and-rescue] NGOs, but the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the central Mediterranean and finding themselves in situations of distress."

Bittersweet end for migrants

Last year marked the deadliest period for migrants at sea in Europe since 2017.

In the less than 24 hours the Life Support was in the search-and-rescue zone, it received six calls from boats in distress, Montes Mier told DW, speaking from the ship's control room on the final day of the mission. Due to the constraints imposed, the vessel was only able to rescue one.

In fact, for at least two clear, sunny days after the Life Support departed the zone, there were no vessels at all patrolling the area between Libya and Italy.

Life Support, on its trek back to Ravenna, carried 71 migrants to safety — less than half the ship's capacity.

These migrants were safe. But none had heard from their friends on the second boat.

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