Map showing status of search and rescue ships and aircraft in Mediterranean as of end-June 2023

June 2023 update - Search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and fundamental rights

Since October 2018, FRA has been publishing regular updates on NGO ships involved in search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean, and the status of legal proceedings against them. This latest update covers until the end of June 2023.

Several rescue vessels deployed by civil society organisations were unable to carry out SAR operations, following inspections, investigations or seizures of ships by the port authorities.

In other cases, crew members or civil society actors faced criminal procedures linked to their SAR activities.

Such criminal proceedings as well as administrative measures against deployed vessels, such as blocking the ship in port due to technical irregularities relating to maritime security, have a chilling effect and intimidate civil society actors.

Out of the 18 NGO vessels which were still active on 30 June 2023, only ten vessels were at sea. Six vessels were undergoing maintenance. Among the remaining ones, two were blocked at port, due to ongoing legal proceedings. All three reconnaissance aircraft were operational (see Figure).

Figure: NGO assets involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea between August 2014 and 30 June 2023, whether operational or not, whether facing legal proceedings or not.


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Figure showing NGO assets involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea, 30 June 2023. Source: FRA, 2023.

Since 2017, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and Spain initiated 63  administrative or criminal proceedings affecting search and rescue operations by civil society actors. The majority concern measures against SAR vessels; one third of the 63 measures concern criminal proceedings against the staff working for the NGOs deploying the vessels or against the crew. 

Most of the deployed vessels faced legal proceedings against the vessel and/or the crew (24 out of 40). Over time, FRA observed an increase in the use of measures of an administrative nature based on the laws of navigation and safety at sea (resulting in the vessels being seized or otherwise blocked at ports), and a decrease in criminal procedures against crew members or NGO staff (see Table).

Table: Active and non-active assets deployed by civil society: overview of legal proceedings






Faced legal proceedings

No legal proceedings

Faced legal proceedings

No legal proceedings

Active assets (including those under maintenance and blocked at port)








Inactive assets






Total assets







Table with an overview of legal proceedings against vessels and reconnaissance aircraft deployed in the Mediterranean by civil society actors. Source: FRA, 2023.

The Annex lists the ongoing and closed administrative and criminal proceedings against NGO rescue vessels and/or its individual crew members of which FRA is aware, having reviewed publicly available sources and having contacted civil society actors.

Most closed cases ended with an acquittal, the release of the confiscated or detained vessel; or were discontinued due to the lack of evidence.

Since July 2022, six new legal cases were opened in Italy. They consist of fines and blocking vessels for 20 days at port.

The most common measures are a consequence of the enforcement of Italy’s Decree 1/2023, converted into Law 15/2023, which sets additional requirements on search and rescue operations by civil society. It obliges SAR vessels to proceed to the designated port; in practice, ports which are far away from the rescue area have frequently been assigned. In addition, the new legislation requires SAR vessels to proceed immediately after each rescue to the port assigned, thus reducing the possibility of rescuing other groups of people in distress over the course of several days. The NGOs that faced sanctions refused to head to the designated ports or decided to rescue more groups of people in distress at sea. Other legal cases were opened following inspections and the detection of technical irregularities. No new case was opened against individual crew members for aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

Legal actions against NGOs and volunteers involved in search and rescue at sea based on domestic criminal or administrative law must be implemented in accordance with the relevant international, Council of Europe and EU fundamental rights law and refugee law standards. This requires distinguishing between smugglers and those enforcing the human rights imperative of saving lives at sea, either by acting out of humanitarian considerations and/or by following international legal obligations for rescue at sea. National authorities and courts must find the right balance between applicable international and EU law, and national law. The 2017 UNHCR guidance on search and rescue operations at sea, including the non-penalisation of those taking part in these activities, gives useful guidance in this regard.

FRA will follow closely any further developments and continue to report regularly.