92 people were rescued in the Central Mediterranean and safely disembarked in Pozzallo (south-eastern Sicily) last Saturday 11th June by MEDITERRANEA Saving Humans’ MARE JONIO. Our ship left the previous Friday, 3rd June, from the Sicilian port of Mazara del Vallo for the twelfth observation and monitoring, search and rescue mission of the only ship of the European civil fleet flying the Italian flag.

A few hours after entering the Libyan SAR zone (south of the 34°20 parallel) in the afternoon of Saturday 4th June, the MARE JONIO intervened in support of the Sea-Watch-3 ship of the German organisation of the same name, which had heard by radio a report from a Libyan fishing boat of a first boat in difficulty. As the two civilian vessels were heading for the indicated position, we could distinctly observe on the radar the intense activity of the Maltese military drone AS2132 in the area and, subsequently, listen to the radio chatter of a Maltese Armed Forces AW139/SAR2187 helicopter that was flying over the boat in distress, providing its position to a Libyan patrol boat that was on its way to the scene. It was pointed out to the pilots of the Maltese helicopter by radio that they were collaborating in a clear violation of international law.

Indeed, collaborating with the capture at sea and deportation to Libya of people who are fleeing from a country where they are exposed to unspeakable violence and abuse is a violation of both the 1979 Hamburg Convention on Sea Rescue and the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Rights of Refugees and Asylum Seekers. There is a ban on refoulement for people fleeing from Libya, and according to UN agencies, Libya itself cannot be considered a ‘safe haven’ for disembarkation.

After much insistence on our part, the Maltese military helicopter left the scene and the Libyan patrol boat reversed its course, heading towards the African coast. At this point, at around 11.30 p.m., the Rescue Teams of Sea-Watch-3 and Mediterranea reached the drifting boat and, with the support of the Mare Jonio’s crew, eighty-five people including several women and children were safely transferred on board the German ship, which was able to resume its course northwards with 307 people on board. While the Mare Jonio continued its monitoring activities in international waters.

Photo credit: Sea Watch

Favourable weather conditions saw several departures from the Libyan coast on Sunday 5th June with numerous boats in distress at sea and an aggressive presence of the patrol boats of the so-called “Libyan coast guard.” Shortly after witnessing an initial pull-back by Libyan militias, at around 10am in the stretch of sea north of the Bouri oil platforms, at 10.30am the Mare Jonio spotted through binoculars a second boat in distress, adrift with failing engine and overcrowded at risk of capsizing. Our rescue teams immediately approached and distributed life vests to the people on board. As they were starting to transfer people on board our ship, the unit 654 “Sabratha” of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard arrived at the scene of the rescue operation at great speed. This is one of those Bigliani-class patrol boats donated in 2018 by Italy. Via radio the Mare Jonio repeatedly asked the patrol boat to move away without interfering with the rescue so as not to jeopardise the safety of the shipwrecked people, who were already in a panic over the fear of being caught and taken back to Libya. No response from the Libyans. And despite this heavy and dangerous interference, all 29 people were rescued on board the Mare Jonio by our Rescue Team.

Subsequently, thanks to the alert sent by Alarm Phone, the MEDITERRANEA ship headed further north towards a third boat in distress that was located between the Maltese SAR area and Tunisian waters. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the scene, we found only the smoking carcass of a small plastic boat, an irrefutable sign that the Libyan patrol boats, which we had seen from our radar were particularly busy in the area, had intervened. In this case, the illegal pushback operation, this time within a search and rescue area of formal European responsibility, succeeded: eighteen people, including women and children, were captured and forcibly returned to the horrors of violence and abuse, torture and rape, from which they were trying to escape.

In the night between Sunday 5th and Monday 6th June, while on board giving initial treatment to the 29 shipwrecked people, the Mare Jonio received a MAYDAY RELAY, a distress call, from the sailing boat IMARA of the German humanitarian organisation R42 Sail And Rescue. Since 2 a.m. Imara was in fact close to a wooden boat overloaded with dozens of people adrift and in danger of capsizing at any moment. The German sailing boat was unable to transfer the shipwrecked people on board due to its too limited space, but it had immediately provided assistance to the people in danger, distributing life vests and supplying them with drinking water. Since the boat in distress was in fact in the SAR area of Maltese responsibility, several requests for intervention were sent, via e-mail and satellite telephone, to the Maltese authorities, but they went unheeded: yet another case of inaction and omission on the part of that country.

Arriving on the scene at around 10.30 am, the Mare Jonio’s Rescue Team found a dangerous situation and immediately proceeded to rescue and embark the 63 people in distress, including some 30 young boys, all unaccompanied minors, and to provide them with the necessary care.

The Mare Jonio then continued its navigation northwards, while reports continued to arrive, particularly from Alarm Phone, of other boats in distress, which were heading towards Lampedusa, between the SAR zones under Maltese and Libyan jurisdiction. In the same hours, aerial reconnaissance activity by the Osprey1 and Osprey2 aircraft of the European Border Control Agency FRONTEX and Malta’s military drone, which we had already seen at work on Saturday afternoon, was particularly intense. This activity did not initiate any official reports of distress, to be conveyed through the channels provided by international law for all commercial and civilian vessels crossing in the area, but instead had as its correspondence numerous interventions by Libyan patrol boats, which once again pushed 10 to 15 nautical miles north within the Maltese SAR zone. In the evening the Mare Jonio headed at full force towards two boats that had contacted Alarm Phone seeking help: we confirmed to the Maltese and Italian authorities our willingness to intervene and we actively collaborated with the Italian Coast Guard in their search. A couple of hours later we received confirmation that the patrol boat CP308 of the Italian Coast Guard, together with a patrol boat of the Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police), had departed from Lampedusa and operated the two rescues.  All the people on board, about twenty on each of the two boats including several women and children, had disembarked safely on the island.

As there was no longer any case of open distress, on the morning of Tuesday 7th June the Mare Jonio sent the first request for the assignment of a safe port of disembarkation (Place of Safety) for the total 92 people rescued and assisted on board our ship to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome (IT MRCC Rome).

We headed north, continuing to monitor the situation at sea, while off the coast of Sicily, Sea Watch 3 with 356 people on board had been waiting for a safe port since 6th June. Both their requests and ours received no positive response, thus starting a ‘tug-of-war’ with the Italian authorities that led us to forcefully demand, at noon on Wednesday 8 June, the allocation of a port without further delay:

It is well known how, at 9:39 p.m. on Wednesday evening, IT MRCC in Rome notified the Mare Jonio (and at the same time the Sea Watch 3) that the Italian Ministry of the Interior had assigned Pozzallo as ‘destination port’ for the disembarkation of the people rescued on board.

The two ships entered and moored in port on the morning of Thursday 9th June. On the same afternoon, the long and tedious disembarkation operations began.  For various reasons, these were conducted in hiccups and with unacceptable delays, all linked to the glaring inadequacy of the system of reception of people ashore, with overcrowded hotspots and centres bordering on collapse, cumbersome identification procedures, and the authorities’ lack of personnel. This is an unacceptable situation, which offends the dignity of the people rescued and unnecessarily prolongs their suffering. To make this point clear: while waiting for disembarkation Sea Watch 3 had to carry out no less than twelve medical evacuations, while on board the Mare Jonio there were 33 minors who are the subject of enhanced protection, and all the shipwrecked people were particularly tried by months of abuse, violence and torture suffered in Libya and by a sea crossing that lasted over three days with very little water and food. Amongst those rescued, we collected a number of chilling testimonies and our medical team found untreated fractures, wounds and disabling injuries as a direct result of their treatment in the Libyan detention camps.

Forty-eight hours after their arrival, in the morning of Saturday 10th June, disembarkation operations were concluded: all the women, men, children and young people rescued on board Sea Watch 3 and Mare Jonio were finally able to set foot in Europe.

Once the post mission operations (the waste disposal, ship sanitisation and refuelling) carried out in Pozzallo concluded, Mare Jonio set off again, and on Monday 12th, with the arrival in Mazara del Vallo, our #Mission12 came to an end.

We are happy to have snatched 92 more lives from the risk of shipwreck, and certain death, and from a fate of abuse in detention camps in Libya. This was possible thanks to the solidarity at sea of the Civil Fleet, embodied in this case in the cooperation between Sea Watch, Imara and Alarm Phone with MEDITERRANEA.

On the other hand, we continue to be saddened by the crimes against humanity that, with the complicity and collaboration of European authorities – we have witnessed once again – are being carried out in the Mediterranean Sea with continuous captures and deportations to the hell from which these people are trying to escape. Countering with our actions the systematic violations of the Hamburg Convention on SAR and the Geneva Convention on the Rights of Asylum Seekers and Refugees is one of the most urgent tasks.

Finally, we can’t help but notice how, with a firm stance, it has been possible to achieve what international law requires, namely the allocation ‘as quickly as possible to the nearest safe place of disembarkation’, whereas in recent months civilian rescue ships have been forced to wait offshore for up to 12 days. This must be matched by an adequate and dignified reception and care system for people ashore. With everyone’s support, MEDITERRANEA will never stop fighting for these goals.

Mazara del Vallo, 14thJune 2022


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