Publication date: 19 June 2020

2020 update - NGO ships involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean and legal proceedings against them

In 2019, the International Organization for Migration estimated that 1,866 people have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe to escape war or persecution or to pursue a better life. This is an average of five people per day. In recent years, a significant proportion of migrants in distress at sea have been rescued by civil society vessels deployed with a humanitarian mandate to reduce fatalities and bring rescued migrants to safety. Since 2018, however, authorities in some EU Member States started viewing civil society-deployed rescue vessels with hostility. As a reaction, national authorities initiated about 40 administrative and criminal proceedings against crew members or vessels, including seizing the latter. In some cases, rescue vessels were blocked in harbours due to flag issues or the inability to meet technical requirements.

Overview

To provide a comprehensive overview of the phenomenon, FRA published a note in October 2018 entitled “Fundamental rights considerations: NGO ships involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean and criminal investigations”. In June 2019, FRA updated the two tables accompanying this note. The overview tables describe criminal and administrative proceedings against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other private entities deploying search and rescue (SAR) vessels.

Some ten new criminal and administrative proceedings were initiated since June 2019. The map below shows the state of play of civil society SAR vessels and aircrafts as of 15 June 2020, including those who had to stop their activities, and indicates past and ongoing legal proceedings against the vessels and/or their crew members.

 

Map showing NGO ships involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea between 2016 and 15 June 2020
 

Map showing NGO ships involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea between 2016 and 15 June 2020

The map shows that due to ongoing criminal proceedings, vessel seizures, and other restrictive measures imposed in response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority these assets are blocked in ports without the possibility of carrying out SAR operations. Since the beginning of June 2020, a few vessels have started sailing again (“Sea Watch 3, “Mare Jonio” and “Astral”) following the relaxation of the measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of a total of 15 vessels and two reconnaissance aircraft deployed in June 2020, five were held in ports pending legal proceedings (see assets in red) whereas others were stuck in ports due to COVID-19 restrictions or other reasons (see assets in yellow). The map also displays the vessels and/or their crew subject to past or current legal proceedings.

The accompaying two tables incorporate new developments during the past twelve months. Table 1 provides an overview of all NGOs and their vessels and reconnaissance aircraft involved in SAR operations since 2016 in the Mediterranean – also showing whether they have been subject to legal proceedings.

In the past twelve months, three new rescue vessels and one reconnaissance aircraft started operations in the Mediterranean. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the seizure of the “Aita Mari” and the “Alan Kurdi” vessels in May 2020, however, no NGO rescue vessel was carrying out SAR activities at sea until “Sea Watch 3” resumed operations in early June 2020. This was due to a combination of factors: seizures and/or criminal investigations but also the restrictive measures to protect public health imposed by EU Member States, including the closure of the Italian and Maltese ports considered “unsafe” by the authorities.

Due to the limited NGO rescue capacity, state vessels and commercial or cargo ships intervened in maritime rescue activities. In recent months, rescued people were kept in quarantine on board before landing or in ports right after their disembarkation. In some cases, rescued persons were kept on tourist ships for long periods, some of them for more than one month, thus exceeding the 14 days of quarantine required (for more, see FRA’s latest Quarterly Bulletins on migration-related fundamental rights concerns).

Table 2 provides further details on the ongoing or closed investigations and administrative or criminal proceedings against private entities involved in SAR operations as of June 2020, of which FRA is aware after having reviewed publicly available sources. It shows that over 40 proceedings have been initiated since 2017 by Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain. Over ten legal cases were opened since last year, seven of which were in Italy. Among them, a dozen were still pending. Over twenty ended with an acquittal or were discontinued due to the lack of evidence.

In Germany, recent amendments to the shipping security adjustment regulation and the motor boat regulation may render it more complicated for NGO vessels to comply with more stringent security and maintenance requirements when engaging in rescue at sea.

The applicable EU and international legal and policy framework remains unchanged, hence the note's related legal analysis is not reproduced but can be consulted via this link. All information is up-to-date until 15 June 2020.

FRA will continue to closely follow further developments and report on this through its Quarterly Bulletins on migration-related fundamental rights concerns covering 17 selected EU Member States.

Download Table 2 - Legal proceedings in the EU against private entities involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea (pdf, 59 KB) >>

Table 1 - NGO ships involved in SAR operations

Table 1: NGO ships involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea between 2016 and 15 June 2020
(ordered by last active date)
Vessel Flag
State
NGO NGO
country
of
registration
Operational   Comments Legal
proceedings
(Yes/No)
May
2017
August
2018
1 June
2019
15 June 2020
'Sea Watch 4' DE Sea-Watch DE - - - ✘*

New acquisition in January 2020, currently at port of Burriana (Spain).

No
‘Seaird‘ (reconnaissance aircraft) CH

Sea-Watch

in cooperation with the Swiss NGO Humanitarian Pilots Initiative

DE + CH - - - ✘*

Waiting in Lampedusa to start operations.

Operational since February 2020.

No
‘Ocean Viking‘ NO

SOS Méditerranée
&
Médecins Sans Frontières

FR - - - ✘* Started operation in July 2019. No
‘Alex Mediterranea‘ IT Mediterranea Saving Humans IT - - - ✘*

Started operation in July 2019.

Seized at the port of Lampedusa from July 2019 to Feb. 2020.

Yes
‘Eleonore Lifeline‘ DE Mission Lifeline DE - - -

Started operation in August 2019.

Seized at the port of Pozzallo (Sicily) since Sept. 2019.

Yes

‘Alan Kurdi’
(previously ‘Professor Albrecht Penck’)

DE

Sea-Eye

&

PROEM-AID

DE - -

Started operation in Dec. 2018.

Seized at the port of Palermo (Sicily) since May 2020.

Yes
‘Mare Jonio’ IT

Mediterranea

(with support from Sea-Watch and Proactiva Open Arms)

IT - -

Started operation in Oct. 2018.

Seized at the port of Licata (Sicily) in May 2019 and from Sept. 2019 to Feb. 2020.

March 2019: The ship was released

March 2019: Seizure of the vessel in Lampedusa due to accusations against the captain and the Mission Head

Yes
‘Sea-Watch 3’ DE Sea-Watch DE -

Started operation in July 2017.

Seized at the port of Licata (Sicily) in May 2019 and from June to Dec. 2019.

Denied to leave port of Catania (Sicily) from Jan. to Feb. 2019.

Denied to leave the port and detained in Malta from July to Oct. 2018.

Yes
‘Mo Chara’ SE Refugee Rescue UK ✘* Started operation in early 2016. No
‘Moonbird’ (reconnaissance aircraft) CH

Sea-Watch

(with support from the Evangelical Church in Germany & the Swiss Humanitarian Pilots Initiative)

DE

Started operation in April 2017.

Resumed operations in Oct. 2018 after a 3 months blockade by the Maltese government.

Yes

‘Mare Liberum’

(used only for human rights monitoring)

DE Mare Liberum DE - ✘*

Started operation in 2018.

Detained in Hamburg (Germany) from April to May 2019.

Yes
‘Josefa’ DE RESQSHIP DE - - ✘*

Started operation in April 2019.

Only monitoring and observation in SAR zones.

No
‘Aita Mari’ ES Humanitarian Maritime Rescue Association (SMH) ES -

Started operation in 2017.

Seized at the port of Palermo (Sicily) since May 2020.

Blocked by the Spanish government from Jan. to April 2019.

Yes
‘Open Arms’ ES ProActiva Open Arms ES - ✘*

Started operation in July 2017.

Under maintenance since Feb. 2020.

Seized at the port of Licata (Sicily) in Aug. 2019, then released the same month.

Blocked by the Spanish government from Jan. to April 2019.

Seized from March to April 2018.

Yes
‘Astral’ SE ProActiva Open Arms ES

Started operation in June 2016.

Under maintenance from April to June 2019.

No
‘Lifeline’ NL Mission Lifeline DE -

Started operation in 2016.

Seized in Malta since July 2018.

Yes
‘Iuventa’ NL Jugend Rettet DE

Started operation in July 2016.

Seized in Trapani (Sicily) since August 2017.

Yes
‘Minden’ - LifeBoat DE Stopped operations in 2019, date not available. No
‘Aquarius’

SOS Méditerranée &

Médecins Sans Frontières

DE/FR/IT/CH

FR

Stopped SAR operations in Dec. 2018 after having been de-flagged and seized in Marseilles since Nov. 2018. Yes
‘The Seefuchs’ - Sea-Eye DE Stopped SAR operations after having been denied to leave the port and detained in Malta from June to Nov. 2018. It was then donated to PROEM-AID and renamed ‘Life’. Yes
‘The Sea-Eye’ - Sea-Eye DE Stopped SAR operations after contestation of its NL flag and seizure in Malta since July 2018. Yes
‘Vos Hestia’ - Save the Children US Stopped SAR operations in Oct. 2017. Yes
‘Vos Prudence’ (operated by MSF Belgium) - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) FR Stopped SAR operations in Oct. 2017. Yes
‘Golfo Azzurro’ - ProActiva Open Arms ES Stopped SAR operations in Sept. 2017. Yes
‘Phoenix’ - Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) MT Stopped SAR operations in Aug. 2017. No
‘Sea Watch 2’ - Sea-Watch DE

Stopped SAR operations in July 2017; replaced by ‘Sea Watch 3’.

It is now called ‘Lifeline’, operated by the NGO mission lifeline.

No
‘Sea Watch’ - Sea-Watch DE

Stopped operations and was replaced by ‘Sea Watch 2’ in March 2016.

It is called ‘Mare Liberum’ since the beginning of 2018, operated by the NGO Mare Liberum.

No
‘Bourbon Argos’ (operated by MSF Belgium) - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) FR Stopped SAR operations in Nov. 2016. No

‘Dignity I’
(operated by MSF Spain)

- Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) FR Stopped SAR operations in 2016. No

Source: FRA, 2020

Notes:

* At port due to COVID-19 restrictions, maintenance or other reasons

-  Information not applicable either because the flag state is no longer relevant or the vessel was deployed after the date indicated in the column

♦ Vessel de-flagged

Grey shaded rows denote vessels which have stopped SAR.

 

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