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SAR Wars

Photo by Fabian Melber/ Sea-Watch (private, to use for the article) 

It’s the 28.10.2019, my girlfriend, Julie, sends me a picture of fifteen people in a rubber boat on the sea. The people on the dinghy are looking up towards the camera. A young boy lifts both of his hands as he waves to the reconnaissance airplane Moonbird, from which Julie and three other crew members are observing them and sending the boat’s position to the International Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC) in Rome.

It the same time, I am sitting in the mess – the living room – of the Sea-Watch 3, one of the last remaining civil rescue ships operating in the central Mediterranean Sea. The crew, consisting of five medical doctors, three engineers, two officers, two fast boat drivers, a photographer, an electrician and eight more members, is ready to rescue. But the ship has been impounded since June while people in the Central Mediterranean need our help. After the Moonbird, with Julie, has landed, I wanted to know what had happened to the people on the boat.

When people in distress are spotted, the first step is to contact the IMRCC. Even though, in this case, the rubber boat is moving quickly and seems sturdy. It only takes a large wave to burst a tube or an engine failure to leave the families stranded. Every rubber boat on the open seas is, by definition, a distress case. IMRCC decides which rescue ship will be in charge of conducting a rescue mission.

On October 28, as in most cases, they inform the so-called Libyan Coast Guard about the rubber boat’s position. At the same time, Moonbird is searching for nearby commercial vessels: with thunderstorms closing in, the boat might not survive the night. Just beyond the horizon, the plane spots the Vos Aphrodite, an offshore supply vessel. 

They circle around the ship, repeatedly calling the captain and bridge. It must have sounded like this: “Vos Aphrodite, Vos Aphrodite, Vos Aphrodite, this is Moonbird, Moonbird. There is a distress case 10 nautical miles away. It is a grey rubber boat with fifteen people aboard. According to international maritime law, you, as the closest ship, are required to help these people in distress.”

The radio crackles – but there is no answer. For commercial ships, taking in refugees means being denied entry to a port of safety. And for offshore oil companies, every hour of delay accounts for losses in the millions. While Moonbird tries to contact the ship again, the land crew has been reaching out to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which is heavily funded and trained by the European Union to intercept people trying to cross the Central Mediterranean. After several unsuccessful calls, Sea Watch’s Air Liaison Officer finally gets through to the Libyan Maritime Coordination Centre. Their response: the weather is bad, and their ships will not go out today. Usually, the specific role of the coast guard is to go out when no other ship can. This is why activists have labelled them the “so-called” Libyan Coast Guard. 

In the airplane, the mood is sombre. They have to leave the people in distress and return before the fuel tank is empty. There remain three civil rescue ships operative in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The Ocean Viking, run by SOS Mediterranée and Doctors without Borders, and the Alan Kurdi of the German organisation Sea-Eye are both in standoffs at entrances to Italian ports, waiting to disembark the people rescued on their recent missions. The Open Arms, of the Spanish organisation Proactiva, is heading to Lampedusa, more than 24 hours of sailing distance away. On their way back to the airport, Moonbird flies over the Open Arms, which has already been contacted by Sea-Watch. That afternoon, the captain and the crew decide to turn the ship around and to sail back into the search and rescue zone.

The next day, at dusk, Moonbird flies out again, searching for that same rubber boat. They cover the entire area the boat could have reached during the night. After hours of flying, on the last leg of their flight pattern, the crew spot the rubber boat again and send its position to the Open Arms. Fifteen people were saved from drowning that day.

For 2019, the International Organisation of Migration recorded 743 deaths on the central Mediterranean route alone. According to these statistics, the central area of the Mediterranean Sea is the deadliest border in the world. Most of the time, however, when civil rescue ships arrive at a distress case, the Libyans have been there before. Their ships are sponsored by Italy and run twice as fast. Often, Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs find empty rubber boats, the people taken back into Libyan camps where they will be tortured, extorted, raped and enslaved to generate revenue for militias. This race to save people from being taken back to Libya is what Search and Rescue activists cynically refer to as “SAR wars”.

The so-Called Libyan Coast Guard during illegal pull-back of a refugee boat from international waters. 7th of May 2018.

Photo by Fabian Melber/ Sea-Watch (private, to use for the article) 

What is the Situation?

In 2014, Italy put an end to its own SAR programme, Mare Nostrum, due to the lack of financial support from European member states. To replace it, they equipped Libyan militias, the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, with patrol vessels. As long as the boats haven’t reached Italian or Maltese search and rescue waters, the MRCC can send out the LCG to hunt and pull back migrants to Libya. This despite the non-refoulement principle of international law, which forbids anyone to return migrants to a country where they are likely to face harm. Libya is not a safe country.

Civil rescue organisations were established to fill the void that Mare Nostrum left. In 2016 and 2017, the Libyans would interfere in rescues, sometimes boarding the civil rescue ships. Europe struggled to find a solution to allocate people that went beyond the Dublin Treaty and, to protect itself from people arriving in Italy, criminalised sea rescues. In 2017, ten members of the rescue ship Iuventa were accused of human trafficking. The ship was confiscated and the activists face up to 20 years of jailtime in Italy. After a media outcry, authorities used more sly tactics: The Aquarius was seized during the winter of 2018 because authorities found out they had not correctly separated their waste. The civil fleet has been reduced from thirteen ships to a mere four that are currently operative.

The Sea-Watch 3 is one of the ships that remains seized. On the day when I received Julie’s message, we were supposed to sail. The ship was legally free again. Instead, the authorities had directives from the Ministry of Interior to not let the vessel leave port.

Europe is building its own border wall in the sea. On November 13, the EU decided to make the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) their best financed agency. By 2027, they are planning to stock up their standing force from 750 to 10,000 border guards. Frontex operates drones that allow for the monitoring and reporting of positions of migrant boats to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard for pull-backs to Libya.

In 2020, Sea-Watch expects their current ship to be unseized. The German protestant church will buy another ship for Sea-Watch, and the civil rescue fleet will keep sailing into the Mediterranean Sea on the lookout for people in distress. But, on a wider level, a solution can only be achieved from an EU-wide agreement on how to allocate asylum seekers to all member states.

Until then, the SAR wars will continue.

Adrian Pourviseh

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