In the past, a significant number of migrants in distress at sea were rescued by civil society vessels. These vessels seek to reduce fatalities and bring rescued migrants to safety in the European Union. Since 2018, national authorities initiated administrative and criminal proceedings against crew members or vessels. National authorities also undertook initiatives to limit access to European ports, causing delays in disembarkation and leaving rescued people at sea for more than 24 hours waiting for a safe port.
FRA published a note in October 2018 on Fundamental rights considerations: NGO ships involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean and criminal investigations. FRA updated the two tables accompanying this note which describe criminal and administrative proceedings against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other private entities deploying search and rescue (SAR) vessels in June 2019, June 2020, December 2020 and June 2021. Since June 2021, one new legal proceeding was initiated (nine in total this year). The map below illustrates the position and situation of civil society SAR vessels and aircraft as of 10 December 2021. It includes those who had to stop their activities. It 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 10 December 2021
Due to ongoing criminal and administrative proceedings, vessel seizures, as well as mandatory maintenance work, many of these assets are blocked at ports and thus cannot carry out SAR operations. Out of 17 assets, 12 are currently operating (assets in green on the map). Eight perform SAR operations. The remaining are vessels and reconnaissance aircraft undertaking monitoring activities. Five are blocked in ports pending legal proceedings (see assets in red on the map). One vessel, highlighted in yellow, is currently docked due to other technical reasons. The map also displays the vessels and/or their crew subject to past or current legal proceedings.
The updated two tables accompanying the 2018 note incorporate new developments during the past six months. Table 1 provides an overview of all NGOs and their vessels and reconnaissance aircraft involved in SAR operations since 2016 in the Mediterranean. It also shows if they have been subject to legal proceedings. In the past six months, three new NGO rescue vessels (‘Nadir’, ‘Rise Above’ and ‘ResQPeople’) started their operations.
In addition to the few civil society rescue vessels deployed, State vessels and commercial ships also conduct rescue activities. In the past six months, in order to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 rescued people were kept in quarantine on board before landing or in ports right after their disembarkation (for more on quarantine vessels, see FRA’s periodic Bulletins on migration-related fundamental rights concerns). Furthermore, Italian health authorities required NGO crew members to undergo a two-weeks quarantine on board after the disembarkation of rescued people.
Table 2 provides details on ongoing or closed investigations and administrative or criminal proceedings against private entities involved in SAR operations as of December 2021. It shows that some 59 proceedings were initiated since 2016 by Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain. Since June 2021, one new legal case was opened in Italy, in addition to eight legal proceedings that started in the first half of the year. The new case concerns a vessel and consists of administrative seizures due to technical irregularities relating to maritime security which were identified after port authority inspections. Overall, the most common issues detected by port authorities concerned the excessive number of passengers transported, ship assets not working properly, having too many life jackets on board, having inadequate sewage systems for the number of potentially rescued persons, as well as for causing environmental pollution. No new cases were opened against individual crew members based on the charge of ‘aiding and abetting illegal immigration’.
In the previous update, FRA reported about legal proceedings against the NGO vessel ‘Sea Watch 4’. After its seizure for the second time in May 2020 due to the appeal by the Italian Coast Guard, it was released in September 2021. Similarly, in June 2021, the NGO ship ‘Open Arms’ was released after being blocked for several months at port due to technical irregularities related to maritime security.
The applicable EU and international legal and policy framework remains unchanged. The original note’s related legal analysis is therefore not reproduced. It can be consulted via this link. All information is up-to-date until 10 December 2021.
FRA will follow closely any further developments and report in its Bulletins on migration-related fundamental rights concerns for 21 selected EU Member States and two candidate countries.
Download Table 2: Legal proceedings by EU Member States against private entities involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea (10 December 2021) (pdf, 291 KB) >>
Since 2018, FRA publishes data on vessels that were not immediately allowed to disembark migrants and waited at sea to be assigned a safe port for more than 24 hours. This can be found in its annual Fundamental Rights Report (2019 – see table on p. 130, 2020 – see table on p. 113, and 2021 – see Annex). In 2021, as in previous years, rescue boats in the Central Mediterranean continued to remain at sea for a long time waiting for authorisation to enter a safe port. Delays in disembarkation risk the safety and physical integrity of rescued persons. The overview table in the tab ‘Table 3 – Vessels without a safe port’ describes instances when vessels with rescued people had to remain at sea for more than a day waiting for the assignment of a safe port. In 2021 (as of 10 December), 28 such instances were reported. There were 22 in 2020, 28 in 2019 and 16 in 2018.
The overview table in the tab 'Table - Vessels without a safe port' shows that in 28 instances, 8,293 rescued persons (including at least 2,500 children) had to remain at sea for more than a day until the national authorities allowed them to dock. In some cases, they waited while multiple rescue operations were carried out. In nine cases, they waited for a week or more. Among those disembarked in Italy, only a few were relocated to other EU Member States, partly due to the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many asylum seekers, refugees and migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean were picked up by the Libyan coastguards and brought back to Libya. Of those who left Libya by sea in 2021, 28,636 disembarked in Libya (until mid-November), compared to 11,891 in 2020, 9,225 in 2019 and almost 15,000 in 2018. Italy renewed its cooperation agreement with Libya in July 2021. Malta signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya in May 2020 to cooperate in operations against irregular migration. As the political situation in Libya deteriorated, in July 2021, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency reiterated their call for states to refrain from returning to Libya any persons rescued at sea.
Assisting people in distress at sea is a duty of all states and shipmasters under international law. Core provisions on search and rescue (SAR) at sea are set out in the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention), and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In general, the shipmaster (of both private and government vessels) has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status, or the circumstances in which they are found. A rescue operation terminates only when survivors are delivered to a ‘place a safety’, which should be determined taking into account the particular circumstances of the case, as specified by the 2004 amendments to the SAR Convention adopted by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The IMO Guidelines on the treatment of persons rescued at sea further specify that a ‘place of safety’ is “a place where the survivors’ safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met”. The selection of a place of safety should take due account of the principle of non-refoulement. Disembarkation where the lives of refugees and asylum seekers could be at risk of persecution, torture or other serious harm must thus be avoided.
In the context of controlling the EU’s external sea border under the Sea Borders Regulation (Regulation (EU) No. 656/2014), EU law incorporates the obligation to render assistance at sea and to rapidly identify a place of safety where rescued people can be disembarked in compliance with fundamental rights and the principle of non-refoulement. This prohibits disembarkation of rescued persons in a country where there is a risk of torture or ill-treatment applies irrespective of any request for asylum by the individual. The duty to fully respecting the right to life (Article 2 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights) and to save lives at sea rests primarily on EU Member States. These core obligations cannot be circumvented under any circumstances, including for considerations of external border control. As part of the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, the European Commission Recommendation (EU) 2020/1365 on cooperation among Member States concerning SAR operations carried out by private vessels encouraged Member States to ensure rapid disembarkation in a place of safety, where the fundamental rights of rescued people are guaranteed, in conformity with the EU Charter and the principle of non-refoulement.
Started operation in July 2019, until April 2020 (COVID crisis stop) in partnership with MSF.
Resumed operations (SOS MED only) in June 2020.
Seized at the port of Empedocle (Siciliy) from July 2020, allowed to proceed to shipyard in port of Augusta (Sicily) in November 2020 and released on December 2020.
Operational since January 2021 (in maintenance in Naples (Italy) from May until mid-June 2021).
Médecins Sans Frontières
Started operations in May 2020.
Detained in July 2021 in the port of Augusta (Sicily) on grounds of identified deficiencies after an inspection of 14 hours.
Operational again in Aug. 2021 after 24 days of detention.
Started operation in June 2016.
Under maintenance from April to June 2019.
After a brief period of monitoring arrivals in the Canary Islands (Spain), it resumed operations in the Mediterranean in August 2020.
Under maintenance from November to February 2021.
Deployed in support of 'Open Arms' in February 2021.
Docked at the port of Badalona (Spain) for engine failure in Sept. 2021, then set to sail again in mid-Nov. 2021.
Humanitarian Maritime Rescue Association (SMH)
Started operation in 2017.
Blocked by the Spanish government from January to April 2019.
Seized at the port of Palermo (Sicily) from May to July 2020.
It resumed operations in February 2021.
Docked in the port of Burriana (Spain) over the summer for regular maintenance work and resumed operations in Oct. 2021.
Started operation in April 2017.
Resumed operations in October 2018 after a 3 months blockade by the Maltese government.
Grounded in September 2020 by the Italian Civil Aviation authority, then resumed operations in November 2020.
Started operation in 2018.
Detained in Hamburg (Germany) from April to May 2019.
Blocked by change of ship safety certificate between April and September 2020.
Decided to suspend maritime operations in September 2020 fearing pending criminal prosecution.
Resumed operations in May 2021.
Blocked by the implementation of Greek Law No. 4825 in October 2021.
Association Pilotes Volontaires
Started operations in December 2020.
Started operation in June 2020.
Started operation in December 2018.
Seized at the port of Palermo (Sicily) from May to June 2020.
Resumed operations in September 2020.
Seized at the port of Olbia (Sardinia) from October 2020 to April 2021.
Docked in Burriana (Spain) for maintenance work over the summer.
Started operation in July 2017.
Seized from March to April 2018.
Seized at the port of Licata (Sicily) in August 2019, then released the same month.
Under maintenance from Feb. to August 2020.
Seized in Pozzallo (Sicily) from April to June 2021, then back to the port of Burriana (Spain) for maintenance works.
Resumed operation in Oct. 2021.
Started operations in May 2021.
Seized at port of Palermo (Sicily) since June 2021.
Resumed operations in Aug. 2021 (starting its second mission).
New acquisition in January 2020.
Started operations in August 2020.
Detained at port of Palermo (Sicily) from September 2020 to March 2021.
Detained in Trapani (Sicily) from May to Sept. 2021, then directed to the port of Burriana (Spain) for maintenance work.
Resumed rescue operations in Oct. 2021.
Seized at the port of Licata (Sicily) in May 2019 and from June to December 2019.
Denied to leave the port of Catania (Sicily) from January to February 2019.
Denied to leave the port and detained in Malta from July to October 2018.
Seized at the Porto Empedocle (Sicily) since July 2020 and allowed to proceed to shipyard in port of Burriana (Spain) in Sept. 2020.
Released in February 2021.
Detained in port of Augusta (Sicily) in March 2021 and allowed to proceed to shipyard in port of Burriana (Spain) in May 2021.
Resumed rescue operations at the end of July 2021.
Started operation in October 2018.
March 2019: first seizure of the vessel in Lampedusa due to accusations against the Captain and the Mission Head.
Released in March 2019.
May to Aug. 2019 and Sept. 2019 to Feb. 2020: second and third seizure at the port of Licata (Sicily).
Aug. To Sep. 2019 resumed SAR operations.
Resumed operations after COVID-19 in June 2020.
Denial of boarding to Rescue and Medical Team in Sept. and Oct. 2020 at Port of Pozzallo (Sicily) and Port of Augusta (Sicily) respectively.
Docked in different locations in Veneto (Italy) since Nov. 2020 for mandatory maintenance work prescribed by the Italian Naval Registry (RINA).
Fully certificated by the Italian Naval Register (RINA) in Dec. 2021.
Planned resuming of operations in Jan. 2022.
Started operation in August 2020.
Blocked at the port of Burriana (Spain) for registration issues since October 2020.
Started operation in August 2019.
Seized at the port of Pozzallo (Sicily) since September 2019.
Started operation in 2016.
Seized in Malta since July 2018.
Started operation in July 2016.
Seized in Trapani (Sicily) since August 2017.
Started operation in July 2019.
Seized at the port of Lampedusa from July 2019 to February 2020.
Started operation in April 2019.
Stopped operations in October 2019.
ResQship is planning to resume operations with a new ship.
SOS Méditerranée &
Stopped SAR operations in July 2017; replaced by ‘Sea Watch 3’.
It is now called ‘Lifeline’, operated by the NGO mission lifeline.
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.
Source: FRA, 2021
* 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 shading = vessels which have stopped SAR.
Medically evacuated persons listed separately; evacuations place may differ from port of disembarkation. The number of children is based on their declaration upon disembarkation and may have been subsequently adjusted. For some operations, only the number of unaccompanied children is available.
A = accompanied children; MSF = Médecins Sans Frontières; NGO = non-governmental organisation; UAC = unaccompanied children.
Source: FRA, 2021 [based on various sources]