FEATURE: NGO rescue flotilla operating in the Mediterranean

Photo: Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)
Photo: Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) – Phoenix

Irregular migrants (IM) have been crossing the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe in significant numbers since 2011. By the end of 2016 some 630,000 IMs had made the journey, with an estimated 13,000 dying in the attempt.

The Italian Coast Guard initially took most of the strain of dealing with the efflux, but the escalation of numbers attempting the crossing, and financial concerns, led, from 2014, to the direct involvement of maritime forces of other European nations.

Operation Triton

This operation commenced in November 2014. Naval and paramilitary vessels have deployed by a total of seven EU, and non-EU European nations, with Italy supplying the majority of the ships. About 20 Triton assets are currently assigned, backed up by helicopters and surveillance aircraft, to carry out search and rescue (SAR) operations within a zone extending 138 nautical miles out from the coast of Sicily.

Operation Sophia (EUNAVFOR MED)

A wide range of warships, sometimes including an aircraft carrier, and submarines, all contributed by EU nations, have been patrolling the Mediterranean, up to the limits of Libyan territorial waters, since June 2015. Usually three to five warships are assigned to the operation at any time, backed up by sea and land-based helicopters, as well as medium and long range maritime patrol aircraft operating from shore bases.

Some 53,000 IMs have been picked up from boats in the Mediterranean so far in 2017. Numbers are rapidly increasing as weather conditions ease. Most originated from Sub-Saharan Africa, or Bangladesh, and had paid African organised crime syndicates to get them to Europe. Few claimed to have fled war zones, most had escaped harsh economic conditions in order to seek better lives in Europe. The IMs usually commence the sea leg of their journeys from the Libyan coast, embarked in very cheap, and flimsy, Chinese-made, racketeer-supplied, RIBs. IMs who agree to navigate and steer the craft get a free trip.

Rome Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre reportedly often receives notice by telephone when boatloads of IMs depart the Libyan shore, and is able to co-ordinate both the interception of the craft at sea, and the subsequent transfer of their occupants, usually to holding centres in Italy.

NGOs into action

By mid- 2014, vessels of non-governmental organisations (NGO), funded both by commercial interests, and by private individuals, and largely manned by volunteers, were taking part in SAR operations in the Mediterranean. Now, there are at least 14 NGO SAR vessels, of varying degrees of suitability, actively engaged in such operations.

Larger NGO ships, such as those of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), conduct full-scale SAR operations, reportedly including the use of surveillance drones, intercepting IM craft, and embarking their occupants for onward transit to Italian ports.

Smaller NGO vessels, like those of Sea-Watch, focus on Libyan coastal waters, distributing life jackets, drinking water and emergency medical care to boatloads of IMs, before handing them on to larger NGO vessels for passage to an Italian port.

According to some reports, some NGO craft are now carrying out SAR operations inside Libyan territorial waters.

The NGO ships are attracting considerable controversy. There have been numerous assertions, strongly contested by the NGOs, that the very presence of their vessels is a strong “pull factor” for potential IMs (there has been some similar criticism, incidentally, levelled at Operations Triton and Sophia).

Furthermore, an official inquiry into NGO SAR activities, prompted by allegations of collusion with international migration racketeers, is underway in Italy.

Accusations of malpractice are vehemently denied by the NGOs. A representative of leading SAR operator MOAS told Baird Maritime that the organisation supplies detailed mission reports to the authorities at every port of IM disembarkation, and categorically denied that there has ever been any collusion or collaboration with smugglers.

More than 20 per cent of the total number of IMs picked up at sea during 2016 were intercepted by NGO vessels, with the monthly percentage rising significantly towards the end of the year.

There is no solution in sight to the current IM crisis, and Europe’s relative wealth, and its proximity to many densely populated, and relatively poor, nations will continue to entice huge numbers of people into risking an expensive and dangerous journey towards what they hope will be a better life. Busy times doubtless lie ahead for both the NGO, and European government, rescue fleets.

OrganisationVessel NameTonnesRegistryTypeBuild Date
MOASPhoenix500BelizeTrawler1973
MOASTopaz Responder1200Marshall IslandsEmergency Response2015
Jugend RettetIuventa200NetherlandsStandby Safety1962
Boat Refugee FoundationGolfo Azzurro360PanamaTrawler1987
MSFDignity 1660PanamaOSV1973
MSFBourbon Argos2,400LuxembourgOSV2013
MSFAquarius2,400GibraltarResearch Ship1977
Save The ChildrenVOS Hestia1700ItalyOSV2009
Proactiva Open ArmsAstralUnknownUnknownYachtUnknown
Sea-WatchSea-Watch 1100NetherlandsFishing Vessel1917
Sea-WatchSea-Watch 2235NetherlandsResearch Vessel1968
Sea-Eye-EVSea-Eye125NetherlandsFishing Vessel1958
Sea-Eye-EVSea FuchsUnknownNetherlandsResearch VesselUnknown
LifeboatMindenUnknownGermanyRescue Vessel1985

Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.