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map of the mediterranean sea. The countries and waters of the region called 'central mediterranean' are highlighted and labelled; Those countries are: Italy (including its islands Lampedusa and Sicily), Malta, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria

Central Mediterranean region and bordering states.
Graphic: authors. Made with map tiles by Stamen Design (shared under the CC BY 3.0 license)

Central Mediterranean deadlier than ever while states hamper rescue efforts

Ariadna Carrascosa Hidalgo, Ida Flik and Áine Kelly-Costello. Published Jan 15, 2020

The death-rate on the treacherous Central Mediterranean crossing has increased for the second consecutive year in 2019, while European authorities and Libyan forces have continued to hamper NGO Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts.

Figures show that in 2018 and 2019, despite fewer total crossings than in the 2015-16 period, approximately one in twenty of those attempting to make the crossing on this route lost their lives.

Death rate on the Central Mediterranean route, 2015 - 2019

Graphic: authors. Data source: IOM's Missing Migrants Project.
Click here to download the raw data. See our methodology for more information.

Meanwhile, continued violent threats and interference of Libyan coast guards and sanctions from EU-state authorities have left NGOs assisting with rescue operations in an increasingly precarious position.

Back in 2018, when the death rate almost doubled from the previous year, “many aid workers attributed the increase in deaths at sea to efforts by various authorities to prevent rescues,” according to the Intercept.

In 2019, the number of rescue ships that were seized or blocked by authorities was higher or equal to the number of vessels that were active during the same period for any given month.

Overview of NGO Search and Rescue vessels on the Central Mediterranean*, 2014 - 2019

The below graph shows the total number of active NGO Search and Rescue vessels for each month between January 2014 and December 2019 with a blue line, and total amount of seized or blocked vessels for the same time with an orange line. Hovering over the area of the chart will show you the exact data. Hover over the question marks to read about some key events for historical context.

You can listen to the same timeline by clicking "play" on the audio below, with an piano representing active vessels and the mandolin representing seized or blocked vessels. The higher the pitch, the higher their numbers during that month. Political events are narrated with a voice over.

*Note: the total number of ships per month is also affected by the date they were purchased,
voluntary inactivity and winter maintenance.

Graphic and sonification: authors. Link to the soundcloud audio file here.
Raw data / Timeline events as html / Methodology

The German NGO Mission Lifeline began rescue operations in 2016 and is currently in the process of buying a third ship, after its first two were seized by Italian authorities in June 2018 and September 2019 respectively.

The organisation’s spokesperson Axel Steier told MIJ that state-sanctioned seizure of SAR ships is increasingly common.

“In fact, it is easy for the states to confiscate the ships on the basis of whatever legal basis. There is actually not much stopping them and even if there were no legal basis, the ships would still be confiscated.”

Status of all NGO Search and Rescue vessels covering the Central Mediterranean*

Ships that are no longer active are displayed in greyscale, additional red symbols show if they have been confiscated or are currently blocked. Only those displayed in full color are currently* operational. Sizes represent real dimensions. Hover over the images to find out more about the ship's history.

*As of December 26th, 2019.

Graphic: authors. Data source: European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and own research.
Raw data / Methodology

International law provisions require states and ship captains to assist those found in distress at sea and to take them to a safe place, regardless of whether the people in question would under other circumstances legally be allowed to enter the EU.

Saving lives in the Mediterranean was not always so fraught.

After over 360 migrants drowned off the coast of Italian island Lampedusa in October 2013, Italian authorities launched a year-long operation with funding from the European commission, focusing on “safeguarding human life at sea” and “bringing to justice human traffickers and migrant smugglers.”

Operation Mare Nostrum, as it was known, was praised by the International Organisation for Migration for its success in rescuing 150,000 migrants in the Mediterranean, and, according to reporting from the Washington Post, it additionally provided medical treatment, shelter, food and legal aid to migrants.

When other EU States declined to assist in its continued funding, the operation was replaced by a greatly scaled-back programme, Operation Triton, run by border patrol agency Frontex, focussing on border control and ending proactive SAR efforts within the deadliest zone off the Libyan coast.

It was in this context of lacking state-administered SAR programmes that NGOs began their involvement with ship rescue missions in the Mediterranean, starting in 2015.

At least a dozen organisations have been involved in carrying out SAR missions since then, and have rescued 99526 people between 2016 and 2019.

The first seizure of an NGO rescue ship took place in August 2017, when Italian authorities seized the Iuventa on the island of Lampedusa. The ship’s crew were accused of colluding with smugglers, a claim the ship’s NGO denies.

This was the first in a litany of state-sanctioned seizures and blockages, mainly by Italian--but also by Spanish and Maltese--authorities, effectively deterring civil sea rescuing efforts in the Central Mediterranean.

Most of the SAR NGOs in the Mediterranean focus their operations on the area where international waters begin, 22 kilometers off the Libyan coast.

But multiple NGOs thought it necessary to suspend their efforts there in 2017.

In addition to patrolling and allegedly forcing boats back to Libya within the 22 km zone of their national waters, Libyan coast guards have extended their presence and activity into international territories, encouraged by Italy and the EU. Migrants pulled back to Libya are placed in detention centres, where according to a 2016 UN report, detainees are subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings and sexual exploitation and other ill-treatment.

EU training of the Libyan coast guard was agreed to already in June 2016, and in May 2017, Italy would begin transferring its SAR responsibilities to the country—a trend which continued when the official Libyan SAR zone was expanded the following year.

It was not until November 2019 that EU officials admitted in a leaked paper that monitoring of Libyan coast guard activities is impossible, that the migrant detention centres are a profitable business model, and that widespread human rights violations, deaths, unexplained disappearances, bribery and corruption still take place within the centres.

During this past year, Italy announced laws barring SAR ships from entering Italian ports in June, which it strengthened in August to include fines of up to €1 million and prison sentences for failure to cooperate with the authorities.

The next month, Italy’s Five Star Movement government lost support and Luciana Lamorgese became Italy’s new Minister of Interior, replacing Salvini, far-right Minister of Interior and the face of Italy’s anti-immigrant policies. She was received with some hope by SAR NGOs, who believed she would soften the recently implemented policies.

In December 2019, Steier from Mission Lifeline confirmed to MIJ that only two boats remain able to continue with SAR missions off the Libyan coast while the other two active boats are required to remain within the Maltese SAR zone.

A total of five vessels are currently seized by authorities including the Iuventa, one in Malta and the others in Italian ports. Other NGO ships have voluntarily stopped operations, some citing “relentless pressure from EU states” and concerns for the “safety and security of our staff” as reasons.

Giorgia Linardi, spokeswoman of NGO Sea Watch, told Al Jazeera that there is a need for concrete action to reduce the concerns of NGOs, and that September’s change in the Italian government does not necessarily mean a change of substance.

“We got used to too many words and few facts," she said. "I don't think we can call the establishment of a new government a victory as long as people keep drowning into the Mediterranean."