25 – 27 July 2020: criminal omissions and foiled deportations

Tuesday, July 28, 2020


Report on solidarity practices and breaking the liquid border regime in the Mediterranean.  


The practices of cooperation and active solidarity that a multiplicity of actors, including Mediterranea Saving Humans, has been able to put in place during the weekend between the evening of Saturday 25th and the morning of Monday 27th July, describe a situation of permanent and repeated violation of people’s fundamental human rights in the Central Mediterranean, but at the same time they also indicate how it is possible to fight them with some effectiveness.


The crucial information is: in two different cases, 95 and 45 people respectively, women, children, men, whose fates could have been forever scarred by dying either by starvation or by drowning, or by being forced to return to the Libyan hell, were instead saved and were able to land and disembark in a “safe port”. The second group was  actually rescued on Sunday evening by a patrol boat of the Guardia di Finanza less than 6 miles from the Italian SAR zone south of Lampedusa. 


How did it happen?

It all began last Saturday at 11:55 p.m., when Alarm Phone, a hotline that is active 24/7 thanks to an extraordinary network of African and European activists on both shores of our sea, announces publicly that it notified both Maltese and Italian maritime authorities that a wooden boat carrying 95 people, whom we’ll later learn were all Eritrean, was located at coordinates 34°24’N 012°04’E in the Maltese search and rescue area (SAR area), but it was also very close to the boundaries of the Tunisian and Libyan SAR zones. 

At 2:45 a.m. on Sunday, the people on board contact Alarm Phone (AP) again. The boat is overcrowded. They are not able to empty the boat of incoming water. “Help. We are dying,” they scream into the satellite phone. The ship Maridive 230 is approximately 20 nautical miles from the boat’s location and could be given the order to rescue them, but the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in La Valletta (MRCC Malta) does not respond to AP’s calls. At 3:45 a.m., the people stranded on the boat inform AP that they have received a call from a Maltese phone number. The voice on the call told them, “We are coming to get you.” At 8:36 a.m., the people on the boat continue to indicate their position, but no one intervenes. There is a ship within sight, but it does not come near them. Water continues to enter the boat, they say desperately, adding that two people have dived into the water, and one of them has disappeared amongst the waves. 


 In the meantime, however, many people on land are sounding the alarm: the communities of the Eritrean diaspora in both Africa and Europe; Giulia Tranchina, a lawyer who is personally in contact with them; Sara Creta, a journalist threatened by Libyan gangs and on equal footing as Nello Scavo from L’Avvenire for her commitment in denouncing the horrors of the detention camps in Libya. Furthermore, it seems that most of the people shipwrecked come from the infamous Tajoura detention center.

From the very beginning, the members of the “Civil Fleet”, Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea-Watch’s Airborne Team’s planes, Moonbird and Seabird, monitoring this area of the sea, start collaborating with AP, in what could be seen as a budding “Civil MRCC”.  

Contacts within the Catholic Church, civil society and independent media in Malta are mobilized. The authorities in La Valletta cannot be allowed to grievously violate international law once again. Their intentions are immediately clear: just as they did many times in previous months, they are waiting for the “so called” Libyan Coast Guard’s motorboats to intercept their “targets”. They want another “push-back;” they want the deportation of these peaceful refugees who are protected under international law. They want to bring them back to Libya, the place from which they are escaping. This cannot and must not end this way.


The pressure on the government of Malta grows exponentially. The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mobilized, via their offices in Italy and Malta first, and then their HQ in Geneva as well. Communication plays a decisive role. The recording of the satellite phone call received by AP containing the desperate request for help received from the wooden boat is broadcast around the world. No one can ever claim they did not know of the crime that was about to take place in front of everyone’s eyes. 


By 6:15 p.m., the shipwrecked people have been without drinking water for hours and are at the limits of exhaustion. They report that another commercial ship was nearby, but it left without offering assistance. We study the maps in order to understand what vessel was in the area: less than ten nautical miles away there is an oil tanker flying the Maltese flag sailing toward an Italian port. We contact the oil company. They demonstrate great sensitivity to the situation and speak to the ship owner: there is an obligation to rescue people at sea, and  those who fail to do so commit a crime punishable by law.

Before midnight, the ship has changed its course and approaches the boat carrying 95 people, giving out life jackets, drinking water and food. The ship stays next to the boat while it awaits instructions from RCC Malta. “Monitor the situation,” says the Maltese Armed Forces. “We are on our way”. Actually, it will be another six hours before anything happens. What they were actually trying to do until the very last moment was deliver the refugees into the hands of their Libyan torturers. Ultimately, a little after 6 a.m. on Monday, a Maltese patrol boat arrived on the scene and rescued the occupants of the wooden boat. 


By the afternoon, they disembarked at La Valetta. They are finally in a “safe port” in Europe. They will have the possibility to build a different future for themselves- far from the persecutions they endured in their homeland, far from the dangers of their long voyage and far from the horrors they suffered in Libya.


Why was there so much unnecessary suffering caused by leaving them at sea for forty-eight hours? Why did European governments and authorities fail to provide assistance so many times? Why is there a “double system” with rapid intercept and capture operated by the Libyan patrol boats on one side and silence and neglect in the Maltese SAR area on the other? 

Why is there such determination in defending an invisible, yet deadly, fluid border?

Why use European funds and collaboration to try and transform the Libyan militia into a contracted border police force? Why are the SAR areas in international waters treated as if they are within sovereign state territory? How is this possible when these areas fall under the current SAR Convention of Hamburg 1979 that clearly states there is a shared responsibility between the authorities from adjoining states, such as Italy?


As seen with the two cases above, these questions were answered by a broad civil society alliance capable of breaking through the regime’s grip over the deadly border

We did it. We were successful. We will continue to do it. 

This is the reason we are trying to return to our mission at sea with the ship Mare Jonio as quickly as possible. 


Because without a European “civil fleet” at sea,  governments’ criminal decisions would go unchecked and the courage of migrant women and men would be  tragically left  alone.