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Annual review of the Mediterranean

28. December 2020

In 2020, the route across the Mediterranean Sea was again one of the most frequent and deadliest escape routes to Europe. Most inflatable or wooden boats set off from Libya. There, people wait in inhumane camps and many are intercepted by the Libyan coast guard or get into distress at sea.

Although sea rescue is a state task, civilian sea rescue organisations have to save people from drowning and are additionally hindered and criminalised. For example, ships are often refused permission to enter a European port for a long time, even though there are often people on board who need urgent medical care, including children and pregnant women. Or ships are detained for abstruse and incomprehensible reasons and operations sometimes have to be carried out without the coordination of the maritime authority.

NGO ships save lives

In 2020, a total of 3,500 people were saved by eight NGO ships. But by far not all people fleeing across the Mediterranean can be discovered. For the whole of 2020, the IOM (International Organization for Migration) recorded 1’111 deaths in the entire Mediterranean and 739 deaths in the Central Mediterranean. 82’704 people have reached the European mainland. More than 11’000 people were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard in 2020 and brought back to shore. The Covid 19 pandemic further complicated the work of NGOs this year. The crisis brought some missions in the Mediterranean to a complete standstill at times.

“Because of the Corona pandemic, politicians have rightly talked a lot about the need to do everything possible to save lives. Unfortunately, this does not seem to apply to the people drowning in the Mediterranean. Today we are at the point where EU governments stand idly by while people drown in the Mediterranean and protection seekers suffer hunger, fear and pain on Greek islands.”

Gordon Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye

In March, all civilian sea rescue ships were detained due to a change in the Ship Safety Regulation or on the grounds of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to research by Der Spiegel, the Ministry of Transport wanted to deliberately prevent sea rescue. Letters from the Ministry of the Interior were sent out explicitly asking not to leave. The new EU mission “Irini” has the task of monitoring the arms embargo against Libya and the expansion of the Libyan coast guard, sea rescue is not taken into account.

On the flimsy grounds of the Covid 19 pandemic, ships are often not given permission to enter a port. As a result, the situation on the ships has deteriorated enormously, with one man attempting to commit suicide and over 120 people attempting to swim to the Italian mainland in September. In May, several rescue ships were detained by the Italian authorities. In response, the UN Human Rights Office demanded an immediate opening of the ports and criticised the detention of rescue ships as well as the “pushbacks” to Libya, which were in violation of human rights. The EU countries involved violated international law with these measures.
The last months of 2020 were riddled with renewed detentions of civilian rescue ships and civilian reconnaissance aircraft. A few rescue missions could be carried out despite the blockades.

“The year 2020 was extremely exhausting and frustrating for all sea rescuers”.

Gordon Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye

SEEBRÜCKE Bern supports Sea-Eye

In October 2020, Sea-Eye purchased an offshore supply vessel (built in 1972) with the support of the sea rescue alliance United4Rescue in order to convert it for rescue operations. The Sea-Eye 4 should be operational from February 2021. We hope for your support both on land and at sea. Get the word out to yourselves and others. Currently, Sea-Eye is still running a fundraising campaign in Bern. We want to finance a rescue day of the new ship. You can help reach the goal at the following link: https://betterplace.org/f36493


  • Nadja Schlüter, Raphael Weiss, 23.12.2020 Now: These NGOs are currently operating in the Mediterranean. Sea rescue in the Mediterranean 2020 – the balance – SZ.de (sueddeutsche.de)
  • SOS Méditerranée Suisse. SOS MEDITERRANEE – SOS MEDITERRANEE Switzerland