Questions about the NGO:
For eight years now, the German non-profit, non-governmental search and rescue organisation SOS Humanity has been rescuing people on the move from distress at sea, providing professional care and support to the survivors on board the rescue ship Humanity 1, documenting their fates and initiating political change.
Founded in 2015 as SOS Mediterranee Deutschland e.V., the search and rescue NGO decided in 2021 to strengthen its rescue capabilities in the central Mediterranean with another ship. Since January 2022, the German organisation has been operating under the name SOS Humanity, detached from the previous European alliance of the four SOS Mediterranee associations, and has been carrying out rescue missions with the ship Humanity 1 since August 2022. The goal: to rescue more people from distress at sea on the deadly refugee route between North Africa, Malta and Italy and to bring them to a port of safety.
Read more about SOS Humanity and its mission here.
SOS Humanity’s demands to the European Union and its member states can be found here.
With the rescue ship Humanity 1, SOS Humanity operates on the world’s deadliest refugee route, the central Mediterranean Sea. Since 2014, more than 22,000 people (as of 2023) have lost their lives there. The crew of Humanity 1 focuses on the broad rescue area north of the Libyan coast in international waters. This is where most maritime emergencies have occurred in recent years – and where no governmental rescue service operates. In the course of 2023, the number of maritime emergencies on the route between Tunisia and the Italian island of Lampedusa have also been increasing, so that search and rescue NGOs are also active in this area. In the summer of 2023, Humanity 1 was asked several times by the Italian authorities to support the Italian coast guard in rescues on this route.
To date, the European Union has not orchestrated a joint response to the deaths in the Mediterranean. Since the termination of the Italian operation Mare Nostrum in 2014, there is no longer a governmental search and rescue programme in the central Mediterranean. Instead, the EU finances the . This criminal actor intercepts fugitives at sea and forces them back to Libya, where they are exposed to widespread and systematic human rights violations. These ‘pull-backs’ are illegal. Both the persistently high death toll in recent years and the completely inadequate rescue capacities have prompted various civil society organisations to conduct their own search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. On the one hand, this is to ensure that people in need receive help. On the other hand, failures and abuses of European migration policy must be documented publicly in order to initiate change.
Fleeing across the central Mediterranean involves many risks: in high waves and heavy swells, boats threaten to break apart, dehydration is a life-threatening danger, especially in the summer months, and even calm seas can be deadly if people are left drifting in them for too long.
The boats in which people flee across the Mediterranean are not designed for use on the high seas. They are often inflatable rubber boats or smaller wooden boats; recently, fast-sinking metal boats have also been increasingly used for fleeing across the Mediterranean. In most cases, these boats are dangerously overcrowded and there is neither rescue equipment, such as life jackets, nor sufficient food and drinking water on board. Only a few millimetres of plastic, wood or metal separate people, many of whom cannot swim, from drowning.
The right to asylum is a human right and is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Yet the possibility of obtaining protection presupposes that a person reaches the territory, or at least the border, of a European Union member state. At the same time, access to this territory is systematically made more difficult. Because there are no regular, legal and safe routes to flee to the EU, people risk the dangerous journey across the central Mediterranean. Decisive factors for people to flee can include wars or armed conflicts in their countries of origin, forced marriage, persecution, torture or the search for a future with education, dignity and .
The suggestion of a connection between the presence of rescue ships and the number of departures (the so-called ‘pull factor myth’) has been refuted numerous times by scientific studies. Rather, a combination of the ‘push factors’ have been statistically shown to motivate Mediterranean crossings.
The rescue of people from distress at sea is deeply anchored in maritime tradition as a human duty and regulated in three binding international treaties: the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS, 1974), the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR, 1979) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982). These treaties are supplemented by guidelines of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
Assistance must be provided to all people in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found [SAR, UNCLOS]. Rescue at sea involves rescuing people, taking care of them and bringing them to a place of safety as quickly as possible [SAR, UNCLOS]. At a place of safety, those rescued must not be exposed to any danger to life or limb. Basic needs such as food, shelter and medical care must be ensured [IMO, MSC.167(78)]. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, 1953) and the Geneva Refugee Convention (GRC, 1954) also stipulate that people may not be returned to a country with a precarious human rights situation (non-refoulement principle).
Coastal states are obliged to establish an effective search and rescue service and to make the necessary capacities available (UNCLOS). They are also responsible for coordinating rescue operations and assigning a place of safety to those rescued [SAR, IMO, MSC.167(78)]. The core of this obligation is the establishment of a rescue coordination centre. This must be available 24 hours a day and staffed by English-speaking personnel [IMO, MSC.70(69)].
In practice, however, we repeatedly observe how state actors circumvent their obligations under international law and systematically violate human rights: rescue coordination centres do not respond or respond too late, they do not fulfil their duty of coordination, and emergency calls remain unanswered and are not forwarded. Instead, the EU cooperates with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which forces refugees back to the country from which they have fled in violation of international law.
Questions about our work:
All ships at sea have a legal obligation to provide assistance to people in distress (UNCLOS Art. 98). A distress case at sea is a situation where there is reasonable cause to believe that a boat is in immediate distress and cannot get out of it without immediate outside assistance. Such an emergency situation exists, for example, when a boat is unable to manoeuvre, when the number of people on board exceeds the capacity of the vessel, or when there is a lack of rescue equipment such as life jackets.
The people who set off from Libya or Tunisia in heavily overcrowded boats and without life jackets, often also without enough water, food and fuel, are therefore effectively in distress at sea as soon as they leave the coast.
Since European states no longer fulfil their duty to coordinate distress cases in the central Mediterranean, we are dependent on the work of other maritime and above all civil society actors. Above all, the non-governmental emergency hotline for people in distress – the Alarm Phone – and l aerial reconnaissance by aircraft belonging to the NGOs Sea-Watch and Pilotes Volontaires are important sources of information about boats in distress. Furthermore, as soon as the crew arrives in the area of operation, an additional lookout is started, during which the crew continuously scans the horizon with binoculars during daylight for possible boats in distress. Technical support is provided by two radars. However, the boats are often so small that they cannot be detected with our technical equipment. This makes the exchange of information amongst NGOs all the more important.
As soon as the crew of Humanity 1 learns of an emergency at sea or sees a boat in distress from on board, they are legally obliged to rescue the people in distress. In doing so, the crew informs the responsible authorities about every step in real time. State rescue coordination centres have the duty to immediately coordinate a search and rescue operation as soon as they are informed of an emergency at sea. Most of the time, however, this duty is disregarded in the central Mediterranean.
As soon as Humanity 1 has reached the distress case after a successful search, the rescue team approaches the boat with its two speedboats and makes contact with the people on board. After distributing life jackets to everyone, our team starts taking people on board the speedboats in small groups and after that on board the Humanity 1. Medical emergencies are evacuated first, then children and women, then finally men.
Our operations always take place in compliance with applicable international maritime law. This includes communication to the responsible rescue coordination centres in Libya, Malta or Italy about all steps taken by the crew of Humanity 1. As soon as the crew has completed all training and arrived in the area of operation, we inform the responsible rescue coordination centres that the Humanity 1 is available for the search and rescue of open distress cases. Coastal authorities are responsible for coordinating search and rescue at sea and assigning a port of safety after a rescue.
If the responsible rescue coordination centre does not take over the coordination of a maritime emergency, it is the task of the surrounding rescue coordination centres to fulfil this coordinating function (SAR Convention). In Humanity 1’s operations to date, all coastal states and rescue coordination centres in the Mediterranean have systematically violated their legal obligations to varying degrees. In some cases, Italy has fulfilled its duty to coordinate, and in almost all cases assigned a port of safety to disembark the survivors.
The Libyan rescue coordination centre fundamentally fails to meet the requirements of a rescue coordination centre: neither is it available 24 hours a day, nor are there English-speaking staff. As a rule, radio calls and e-mails remain unanswered.
Immediately after the rescue, all survivors receive a rescue kit upon arrival on board Humanity 1. This kit contains dry clothing, a blanket and energy-rich food and drinking water. During registration, our medical team checks which people need immediate medical treatment and initiates it if necessary. Women and children are accommodated in a separate shelter, the so-called ‘Women’s Shelter’. Until those rescued can go ashore in a place of safety, our teams provide basic sustenance, as well as emergency medical and psychological care. Our teams also document the stories of the refugees.
Until 2023, long delays in the allocation of a place of safety for survivors to land were the sad norm. With a new law passed in Italy in 2023, requiring ships to sail immediately to the assigned port, the Italian government’s tactics are changing. Instead of delaying, Italy is systematically assigning unnecessarily distant ports. Rescued people are thus put at physical and psychological risk and rescue vessels are kept away from rescue areas for several days at a time.
In April 2023, we filed a complaint with the Civil Court in Rome against the practice of systematically assigning distant ports, which is not in line with international maritime law.
According to maritime law, a rescue is only complete when the rescued people have gone ashore in a place of safety (SOLAS / Chapter 5 / Regulation 33). Accordingly, it must be ensured that they receive food, shelter and medical care and that there is no danger of further persecution.
In addition, the principle of non-refoulement applies as part of customary international law. It prohibits the return of people to a country where they are at risk of torture or other serious human rights violations.
Both conditions – the provision of a place of safety and the principle of non-refoulement – would not be met if rescued people were returned to Libya or Tunisia, and would thus constitute a breach of international law.
Read more about the reasons why Tunisia cannot be places of safety in our background article.
Questions about supporting
The work of SOS Humanity is supported by a committed civil society. Volunteer groups are involved on land, and individual volunteers work on board the ship. SOS Humanity is a member of the German Donations Council and finances itself primarily through individual donations, but also through the support of largely humanitarian organisations. All of these contribute to funding the rescue ship Humanity 1, one of the ships of the alliance United4Rescue, and the many years of experience of the staff, so that people in need of protection can be rescued at sea.
In the summer of 2023, SOS Humanity received for the first time a small grant from the German Federal Budget, approved by the Federal Foreign Office, in accordance with a resolution passed by the German parliament at the end of 2022 to support search and rescue in the Mediterranean.
A detailed breakdown of our income and expenditure can be found in our publicly available annual reports.
There are many ways to support non-governmental search and rescue and SOS Humanity. Whether you subscribe to our newsletter or follow our social media channels, it is important that as many people as possible become aware of the untenable conditions in the central Mediterranean. You can also learn more at events organised by and with us, or get involved in one of our volunteer groups. If you would like to support us on board Humanity 1, you can find out more about your options on our crewing website. As a predominantly donor-funded NGO, we also rely on donations from the general public. You can start a fundraising campaign with family and friends or support us regularly.