Four shipwrecks off Libya cost the lives of more than 100 people over the last weeks and Alarm phone has reported numerous additional incidents of boats in distress or unaccounted for. After rescuing more than 200 people in 48 hours the crew of Sea Watch 4, currently the only active rescue vessel on the Med, urges the release of civilian search and rescue ships blocked in European states.

In just seven days between August 13 and 20 the hotline Alarm Phone received distress calls from 900 people in 14 boats. The organisation states that 100 people have died or gone missing, 160 people remain unaccounted for, and the concerned families of an additional 200 people have reached out.

45 lives were lost on August 17 when a rubber boat carrying 82 people sank off Libya. Despite alerts from Alarm Phone neither Libyan, Tunisian, Italian or Maltese coast guards launched rescue operations and the boat encountered a vessel with armed men, who after extorting the desperate people onboard shot at the rubber boat setting it on fire. Local Tunisian fishermen managed to save 37 people but the rest of the group was lost. On August 18 the tube of a rubber boat carrying around 100 people including children burst leaving it in distress. Alarm Phone unsuccessfully attempted to require help from MRCC Rome as well as the so-called Libyan coast guard and only the intervention of local fishermen saved 65 people from drowning. Another two shipwrecks between Libya and Tunisia resulted in 6 dead and 33 missing on 15 and 18 August.

Amid the loss of life on the civilian search and rescue capacity on the Mediterranean remains extremely limited.  According to a compilation published by the Civil Fleet: Sea Watch 3 operated by Sea Watch and Ocean Viking operated by SOS Mediterranee is detained on Sicily. The Alan Kurdi operated by Sea Eye and the Aita Mari operated by Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH) remain in legal limbo in Sicily. A recent change in German maritime law prevents Mare Liberum, Mission Lifeline, and ResQShip from operating, and the Iuventa has been held by the Italian authorities since 2017.

The only active search and rescue vessel on the Mediterranean, Sea Watch 4 operated jointly by German charity Sea Watch, the international medical organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and German charity coalition United4Rescue, saved 200 people within the first has 48 hours of returning to sea. In a statement the crew of the vessel said: “This European blockade of sea rescue and its inhumane migration policies are deadly: last week, dozens of people drowned fleeing off the Libyan coast.”

Sea Watch 4 now awaits the permission to disembark the 201 rescued people onboard the vessel with several NGOs reminding European states of their obligations. Another 27 people rescued on August 4, remains stranded onboard an oil-tanker as Tunisian and Maltese authorities refuse disembarkation.

In a recent statement ECRE member aditus expressed extreme concern over: “allegations that Malta is complicit in the on-going illegal pushback to Libya of over 100 migrants”. And further stated: “Returning migrants to Libya means returning men, women and children to severe human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, violence and torture, inhumane living conditions, human trafficking and slavery…”

According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) Libya 326 people have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya between August 15 and 24 with an additional 230 arriving within 24 hours around August 27-28. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR estimates that 443 people have died or gone missing at the Mediterranean in 2020 as of August 27.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.