Rescue ship carrying 141 migrants seeks to dock in Europe

The Aquarius NGO vessel makes the appeal after being refused support by rescue centre

Migrants being rescued by the Aquarius team in the Mediterranean Sea. Photograph: Médicins Sans Frontières/EPA

Migrants being rescued by the Aquarius team in the Mediterranean Sea. Photograph: Médicins Sans Frontières/EPA


A search-and-rescue ship carrying 141 migrants, including 67 unaccompanied minors, who were rescued from the Mediterranean on Friday is calling for permission to dock in a European port, after it was refused support from a rescue co-ordination centre.

The SOS Méditerranée maritime rescue organisation and Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operate the Aquarius search-and-rescue vessel, have called for European governments to allow the ship to dock in the closest place of safety to ensure those rescued can disembark and receive humanitarian assistance.

The Aquarius team discovered and rescued 25 people travelling on a small wooden boat with no engine on Friday morning. It is believed the group had been at sea for nearly 35 hours before they were found.

Later that day, the team spotted a second overcrowded wooden boat with 116 people on board, including 67 unaccompanied minors.

More than 70 per cent of those rescued come from Somalia and Eritrea, while many report being held in inhumane conditions in Libya before leaving for Europe.

Survivors also reported that five different ships passed by their wooden vessel without offering assistance. Under international maritime law, the master of a ship has an obligation to offer assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they were found.

“It seems the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea is now at stake,” said Aloys Vimard, MSF project co-ordinator on board the Aquarius.

“Ships might be unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded and denied a place of safety. Policies designed to prevent people from reaching Europe at all costs are resulting in more suffering and forcing those who are already vulnerable to take even riskier journeys to safety.”

The Aquarius contacted relevant authorities on Friday while both rescues were being carried out, seeking support from the Italian, Maltese and Tunisian maritime rescue co-ordination centres.

It also contacted the Libyan Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre (JRCC), which claimed to be the co-ordinating authority for the rescues. However, the Libyan centre refused to provide a place of safety for those on board and requested that the Aquarius seek safety from another co-ordination centre, according to MSF.

Highlighting dangers

The medical charity has highlighted before the dangers of returning people to Libya and the human rights abuses many asylum seekers suffer in that country.

Nick Romaniuk from SOS Méditerranée said the vessel had contacted the other rescue co-ordination centres seeking a safe place to dock.

Mr Romaniuk said that despite European support for the Libyan rescue centre, it was refusing to accept asylum seekers back into the country.

“A rescue is not complete until there is disembarkation in a place of safety. The Libyan JRCC clearly told us they would not provide this. Additionally they did not inform Aquarius of boats in distress which they were aware of, despite the fact we were in the vicinity and offered our assistance. It was extremely fortunate that we spotted these boats in distress ourselves.”

Both charities are calling on European governments and their relevant maritime rescue authorities to recognise the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and to grant quick access to the nearest place of safety.

In June, the Aquarius was forced to spend a week travelling across the Mediterranean to Spain with hundreds of people on board after the Italian government refused to let it dock.

Some 1,522 people have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean so far this year. A total of 63,146 have arrived on European soil, including 27,614 in Spain, 18,931 in Italy and 16,528 in Greece.