2022 Annual Review of Search and Rescue: Europe Continues to Wall Itself Off
21.12.2022. Non-governmental search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean Sea continued to be hampered in 2022, with the legal and humanitarian duty of search and rescue being undermined. SOS Humanity, founded in 2015 and currently carrying out rescue operations with the ship Humanity 1, has summarised the most important events of the year for search and rescue at sea in a chronological review. Events listed include the detentions of rescue ships, indictments in Italian courts, and threats by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. The latter continues to be financed and equipped by the EU despite widely documented human rights violations by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. A new development for non-governmental sea rescue in the Mediterranean was a decree by the newly elected right-wing Italian government in autumn, which almost completely banned rescue ships from Italian waters and led to a selection of survivors.
The humanitarian situation for those fleeing across the Mediterranean remains catastrophic: continued EU funding of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard leads to a vicious cycle of detention, violence, and flight for migrants and refugees in Libya. In line with the EU border policy of walling off Europe, more than 22,500 children, women, and men fleeing across the Mediterranean were intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard during the year and returned to Libya from where they had fled.
The crew and the survivors on Humanity 1, the rescue ship of the non-governmental search and rescue organisation SOS Humanity, witnessed such a violent pull-back in December. A survivor on board the Humanity 1 who had been rescued from distress at sea before observed the scene and reported in shock: “We were screaming here from aboard the Humanity 1. But there was nothing we could do. At that moment we saw our brothers and knew that they would suffer again, perhaps worse than us. I have been in the water myself. I have been in prison. I have seen people dying in front of me (in Libya).”
For more than 1,370 people in distress at sea in the Central Mediterranean in 2022, there was no hope or help arrived too late: they drowned or are considered missing. Estimates of the number of unreported cases are far higher. During the three rescue operations of the Humanity 1, the crew did not receive any coordinating support from the responsible state-run rescue coordination centres for any of the 10 rescues. Instead, the new right-wing Italian government imposed a decree against non-governmental search and rescue ships, largely prohibiting them from staying in Italian waters. Further administrative restrictions on non-governmental search and rescue activities have been announced for 2023, and the establishment of a state-coordinated European search and rescue programme is not in sight. Yet, search and rescue is a duty, enshrined in international law.
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