In the past, civil society vessels rescued a significant number of migrants in distress at sea. These vessels seek to reduce fatalities and bring rescued migrants to safety in the European Union (EU). Since 2018, national authorities began administrative and criminal proceedings against crew members or vessels. They also tried to limit their access to European ports, causing delays in disembarkation and leaving rescued people at sea for over 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. The Agency regularly updates the two tables accompanying this note which describes criminal and administrative proceedings against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other private entities deploying search and rescue (SAR) vessels and aircraft.
Since December 2021, two new administrative proceedings were initiated in the first half of 2022. In the same period, at least one SAR vessel stopped operating in the Aegean Sea due to the changes in Greek laws on the operation of rescue NGOs. The map below illustrates the position and situation of civil society SAR vessels and aircraft as of 15 June 2022. It includes those who had to stop their activities. It also indicates past and ongoing legal proceedings against the vessels and/or their crew members.
Map showing NGO assets involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea between 2016 and 15 June 2022
Due to ongoing criminal and administrative proceedings, vessel seizures, as well as mandatory maintenance work, some of these assets are blocked at ports and thus cannot carry out SAR operations. Out of 21 assets, ten currently operate (in green on the map). Out of these ten, seven perform SAR operations (‘Sea-Watch 4’, ‘Astral’, ‘Aita Mari’, ‘Aurora’, ‘Sea-Eye 4’, ‘Nadir’ ‘Louise Michel’). The remaining vessels and reconnaissance aircraft undertake monitoring activities. Four are blocked in ports pending legal proceedings (in red on the map). Seven vessels (in yellow) are currently docked due to other technical reasons. The map also displays vessels and/or their crew subject to past or current legal proceedings.
The two updated tables accompanying the note contain new developments over the past six months. Table 1 is 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, one reconnaissance aircraft started operating (‘Seabird 2’), one stopped operating (‘Moonbird’) and one NGO rescue vessel stopped monitoring (‘Mare Liberum’).
In addition to the few civil society rescue vessels deployed, state vessels and commercial ships also conduct rescue activities. Until 1 June 2022, to prevent any potential spread of Covid-19 rescued people were quarantined on board before landing or in ports right after their disembarkation (for more on quarantine vessels, see FRA’s Quarterly Bulletins on migration-related fundamental rights concerns).The Italian Health Ministry stopped this practice as of 1 June 2022.
Table 2 provides details on ongoing or closed investigations and administrative or criminal proceedings against private entities involved in SAR operations as of June 2022. It shows that since 2016 Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain initiated 60 proceedings. Since December 2021, two new legal cases opened in Italy, in addition to eight legal proceedings started in 2021. Among the new cases opened in Italy one concerned the administrative detention of a vessel 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, ship assets not working properly, having too many life jackets on board, having inadequate sewage systems for the number of potentially rescued people, as well as for causing environmental pollution. No new case was opened against individual crew members on the basis of ‘aiding and abetting illegal immigration’ charges.
The applicable EU and international legal and policy framework remains unchanged. The original note’s related legal analysis can be found here. All information is up-to-date until 15 June 2022.
FRA will follow closely any further developments and continue to report regularly.
Download Table 2: Legal proceedings by EU Member States against private entities involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea (June 2022) (PDF, 297 KB) >>
Since 2018, FRA publishes data on vessels that were not immediately allowed to disembark migrants and had to wait at sea to be assigned a safe port for more than 24 hours. This can be found in FRA’s annual Fundamental Rights Report (2020 – see table on p. 113, in 2021 – see Annex, and in 2022 – see also Annex). In 2022, 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 people. The overview table below describes instances FRA could corroborate when vessels with rescued people had to remain at sea for over a day waiting for a safe port. In 2022 (as of 15 June), at least 19 such instances were reported. There were 17 in 2021 and 22 in 2020.
The overview table in the tab Table – Vessels without a safe port shows that in the reported 19 instances, 3,716 rescued people (including at least 928 children) had to remain at sea for over a day until the national authorities allowed them to dock. In some cases, they waited while multiple rescue operations were carried out. In 12 cases, they waited for a week or more until the national authorities allowed them to dock.
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 2022, 8,270 disembarked in Libya, compared to 32,425 in 2021, 11,891 in 2020, 9,225 in 2019 and nearly 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 anybody rescued at sea to Libya.
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.
The 2022 Joint Statement on Place of Safety by UN entities and the 2018 UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (Objective 8) equally reaffirmed the above basic rules and principles.
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 operations 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).
Resumed operations after 17 days of detention in the port of Trapani in January 2022.
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 August 2021 after 24 days of detention.
Started operations 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 2020 to February 2021.
Deployed in support of 'Open Arms' in February 2021.
Docked at the port of Badalona (Spain) for engine failure in September 2021, then set to sail again in mid-November 2021.
Operational again in the central Mediterranean in May 2022.
Humanitarian Maritime Rescue Association (SMH)
Started operations 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 October 2021.
Blocked at the port of Lampedusa (Italy) after the disembarkation of 176 migrants due to mandatory Covid-19 quarantine despite all crew members testing negative and being fully vaccinated in January 2022.
Headed back to the port of Vinarzo (Spain) after 10 days quarantine to prepare for new missions in February 2022. Under periodic checks in the port of Burriana (Spain) in May 2022.
in joint cooperation with the Swiss NGO Humanitarian Pilots Initiative
Started operations in April 2017.
Resumed operations in October 2018 after a three months blockade by the Maltese government.
Grounded in September 2020 by the Italian Civil Aviation authority, then resumed operations in November 2020.
Retired after five years of mission in February 2022.
Started operations 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 October 2020 fearing repercussions and shifted to monitoring in the Aegean Sea. Stopped its monitoring operations in the Aegean Sea in February 2022 due to changes in Greek law regulating search and rescue NGOs.
Association Pilotes Volontaires
Started operations in December 2020.
Started operations in February 2022.
Since March 2022, Seabird 2 has been prevented from entering the Libyan Flight Information Region (FIR) above the Libyan Search-and-Rescue zone. The Libyan authorities require a PPR (Prior Permission Required).
Started operations in June 2020.
Since March 2022, Seabird 1 has been prevented from entering the Libyan Flight Information Region (FIR) above the Libyan Search-and-Rescue zone. The Libyan authorities require a PPR (Prior Permission Required).
Started operations 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 February 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 October 2021.
Started operations in May 2021.
Seized at port of Palermo (Sicily) since June 2021.
Resumed operations in Aug. 2021.
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 September 2021, then directed to the port of Burriana (Spain) for maintenance work.
Resumed rescue operations in October 2021.
Operated by Sea-Watch until August 2022, then handed over to the NGO SOS Humanity in May 2022; expected to operate from August 2022.
Started operations in July 2017.
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 September 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 operations 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 August 2019 and September 2019 to February 2020: second and third seizure at the port of Licata (Sicily).
Resumed operations after Covid-19 in June 2020.
Denial of boarding to Rescue and Medical Team in September and October 2020 at the port of Pozzallo (Sicily) and the port of Augusta (Sicily) respectively. Docked in different locations in Veneto (Italy) since November 2020 for mandatory maintenance work prescribed by the Italian Naval Registry.
The Italian High Court confirmed the seizure of the vessel in December 2021. Resumed operations after the inquiry by the Prosecutor in Ragusa (Italy) in January 2022. Forced to stop in the port of Palermo (Italy) due to a technical problem in January 2022.
The Tribunal of Agrigento (Italy) dismissed the charges against the shipmaster and the head of mission in January 2022 for a rescue operation occurred in May 2019.
Blocked at the port of Burriana (Spain) for registration issues since October 2020.
Resumed operations in January 2022. Blocked at the port in Valencia (Spain) for maintenance work in April 2022.
Started operations in August 2019.
Seized at the port of Pozzallo (Sicily) since September 2019.
Started operation in 2016.
Seized in Malta since July 2018.
Started operations in July 2016.
Seized in Trapani (Sicily) since August 2017.
Preliminary hearings in Trapani (Italy) on the charges against 21 former crew members started in May 2022.
Started operations 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.
Sold to the NGO ResQ – People Saving People with the name ResQPeople in July 2021.
Started operations in July 2019.
Seized at the port of Lampedusa from July 2019 to February 2020.
No longer operational due to Covid-19 protocols.
Started operations 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, 2022
* 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; the place of evacuation may differ from the 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.
In multiple rescue operations, the table shows the number of days of those staying longest at sea.
AC = accompanied children; MSF = Médecins Sans Frontières; NGO = non-governmental organisation; UAC = unaccompanied children.
Source: FRA, 2022 [based on various sources]