Ocean Viking rescue operations expose Libya’s crisis out at sea

The crew of the Ocean Viking completeing a rescue. (Hippolyte / SOS Mediterranee)

On 9 February, the crew of the Ocean Viking breathed a sigh of relief as the last of the 422 people they rescued near the Libyan coast stepped off the ship and onto the dock at the port of Augusta, Sicily.

The group, including pregnant women, young children and minors traveling alone, were rescued by the NGO vessel in less than 48 hours as it patrolled the Central Mediterranean sea - notoriously one of the most dangerous migratory routes in the world.

Just over two weeks before, the crew rescued 374 people adrift in flimsy, overloaded inflatable dinghies, in the Ocean Viking’s first rescue operation since July last year when it was blocked in port by the Italian authorities. The ship’s crew has already rescued almost the same number of people they managed to save in the entirety of 2020.

With the number of departures from Libya on the rise and few NGOs on hand to respond to distress calls, the crew has found itself quickly overwhelmed.

“If we are able to rescue over 400 people in two days, what does that mean for the days when we are not at sea and when there's no other asset at sea?” says Caroline Abu Sa’Da, director of SOS Mediterranee Suisse, speaking to Geneva Solutions. “When you realise that, it's extremely scary to imagine what can happen if there are no assets at sea, because the situation in Libya is not getting any better.”

Treacherous seas. Operated by the European organisation SOS Mediterranee, the Ocean Viking has been carrying out rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean since 2019. It was preceded by the Aquarius, an earlier vessel operated by NGOs including SOS Mediterranee, which saved 29,523 people between 2016 - 2018.

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Known as one of the most treacherous migratory routes in the world, 17,000 asylum seekers and migrants are known to have disappeared or died attempting to make the journey from North Africa to Europe since 2013. In 2020 alone, around 36,400 people attempted the crossing. Of these, 840 deaths and disappearances were confirmed - although the true number is likely to be much higher, with many deaths having gone unrecorded due to a lack of search and rescue operations in the area for the majority of last year.

Stuck in limbo. The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on rescue efforts, effectively bringing operations to a halt for a large part of 2020. NGO vessels were unable to carry out rescues safely and European countries such as Malta and Italy closed their ports to the few ships that continued to operate, including merchant vessels that picked up survivors. This left ships stranded at sea for sometimes weeks at a time, as conditions onboard deteriorated and countries routinely ignored distress calls.

To make the situation worse, six NGO vessels including the Ocean Viking were held in administrative detention by the Italian authorities for varying lengths of time, on vague technical irregularities and safety concerns. When the Ocean Viking was detained in July, SOS Mediterranean condemned the move as "a blatant administrative harassment manoeuvre aimed at impeding our lifesaving work", in keeping with European hostility and harassment towards charity-run rescue operations. With countries unwilling to run rescue operations themselves and most NGO services unable to operate, a deadly gap opened up between the shores of Europe and North Africa.

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“For the five months we were in detention it was extremely difficult for the team knowing what was happening at sea and knowing that the mortality rate was probably exploding,” says Abu Sa’Da. “The idea of each day that has passed with no vessel at sea...is insane, considering the number of departures.”

After months of costly efforts to free the Ocean Viking and ensure it met new safety requirements, the ship was finally allowed to leave Marseille, France and set sail for the Central Mediterranean on 11 January.

‘Dire humanitarian situation’. Already in April last year, the UN refugee agency UNHCR warned of increasing departures from Libya as Covid-19 and conflict made it increasingly difficult for people to find means to survive. According to EU border agency Frontex, there was a 400 per cent increase in arrivals from the Central Mediterranean in the first few months of the year compared to the same period in 2019, and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) reported that, by September 2nd, 21,927 people had reached Italy or Malta by sea: 47 per cent more than throughout 2019.

The survivors rescued by the Ocean Viking include people from South Sudan, Tunisia, Somalia, Ethiopia and Syria, pushed to migrate by a myriad of pressures such as conflict, insecurity or the impacts of Covid-19, and what the IOM has described as “dire humanitarian conditions” in Libya.

Clamp-down on departures. While very few and often no NGO vessels are on the water, the EU-funded Libyan coastguard has stepped up operations in recent months, intercepting more than 11,000 people at sea last year.

On 5 February 2020, when 1000 people tried to leave Libya in just 24 hours, 800 were intercepted and taken back to detention centres, where conditions are known to be inhumane. Abu Sa’Da says many of the survivors recently aboard the Ocean Viking had been subjected to horrific torture and sexual violence in these centres.

“The problem is not the interception in itself, the problem is what interception means to people,” says Abu Sa’Da. “Libya is a country at war, people are being tortured, locked up, raped...we must not let people go back there.”

SOS Mediterranee shares some of these stories on their site, as testimony to the events that are happening in Libya. When rescue vessels are not at sea, it’s not only lives that are lost, Abu Sa’Da says. It’s the stories - the reasons people are risking their lives - that are lost too.

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Hostility from Europe. Although the crew of the Ocean Viking are happy to finally be back on the water, it is bittersweet. NGO vessels should not have to be there, trying to fill the gap left by European states who have drastically reduced their rescue operations in recent years, says Abu Sa’Da. On 19 January, the IOM and UNHCR renewed calls for urgent State-led search and rescue operations to resume following the first tragic shipwreck of the year recorded off the Libyan coast in which at least 43 people died.

“This includes ending returns to unsafe ports, establishing a safe and predictable disembarkation mechanism followed by a tangible show of solidarity from European states with countries receiving high numbers of arrivals,” said the organisations in a statement.

However, with the EU doubling-down on policies which prevent asylum seekers and migrants from entering its borders, the likelihood of rescue operations being scaled-up in the near future looks slim. Meanwhile, the factors that push people to risk their lives on the Central Mediterranean - such as conflict, violence and deteriorating economic conditions - show no sign of relenting.

'Survival is not a choice'. While the Ocean Viking prepares for its next voyage, the vast stretch of ocean between Libya and the shores of Europe is once again largely empty of rescue vessels.

Many NGO ships remain detained at port and unable to operate, while the Libyan coastguard continues to ramp up interceptions. At the beginning of the month, a group of NGOs called on the Italian parliament to revoke the Italy-Libya accord which allows these interceptions, and instead resume search and rescue activities.

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"Libya cannot be considered a safe place, but rather a country in which violence and brutality represent everyday life for thousands of migrants and refugees," said the organisations in a joint statement, noting that Italy has spent a record €785 million to block migratory flows in Libya and to finance Italian and European naval missions since the accord was signed in 2017.

"A good part of that money - more than €210 million - was spent directly in the country, but unfortunately it hasn't done anything but contribute to further destabilising it and pushing human traffickers to convert the business of smuggling and human trafficking into a detention industry," read the statement.

With Italy currently between governments following the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, it remains to be seen whether the call will be answered. Abu Sa'Da explains the fault for the current situation in the Central Mediterranean by no means lies with Italy alone, but stems from “a lack of solidarity between European States”. But the people fleeing Libya do not have time to wait while the political manoeuvring drags on.

“There's absolutely no one who goes on an embarkation like that with so little chance to actually make it to another coast by choice,” says Abu Sa'da. “You don't put your children onboard such an unseaworthy embarkation [unless] to flee a context where you're being brutalised every single day - some of them for months, some of them for years. It's not a question of choice. Survival is not a choice. ”