Violations Of International Law and Foiled Rejections

The First 24 Hours of Marejonio’s Mission 12 in the Central Mediterranean: 29 People, Rescued From Shipwreck and Detention Camps, Now on Board

The first twenty-four hours spent in the Central Mediterranean by the ship MARE JONIO of MEDITERRANEANEA Saving Humans, which left the Sicilian port of Mazara del Valle on Friday afternoon for the twelfth mission of observation and monitoring, search and rescue of the only ship of the European civil fleet flying the Italian flag, have been very intense.

A few hours after entering the Libyan SAR zone (south of the 34°20 parallel) on Saturday afternoon, 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 distress. As the two civilian vessels were heading for the position indicated, they could observe on the radar the intense activity in the area of the Maltese military drone AS2132 and, afterwards, 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 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 Libya itself can in no way be considered, even according to UN agencies, a ‘safe port’ for disembarkation.

After much insistence on our part, the Maltese military helicopter left the scene and the Libyan patrol boat reversed 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 north with 307 people on board. The Mare Jonio continued its monitoring activities in international waters.

Favourable weather conditions saw several departures from the Libyan coast this Sunday morning 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.

We were happy to have snatched 29 lives from the risk of shipwreck, and certain death, and the fate of abuse in detention camps in Libya. This was possible thanks to the cooperation at sea of the Civil Fleet, in this case Sea Watch and Alarm Phone. On the other hand, we were saddened by the crimes against humanity that we witnessed once again and that are committed in the Mediterranean with the complicity and cooperation of European authorities.

Mare Jonio’s Mission 12 continues.