Who is Who in the Mediterranean Rescue Scene

There is currently the biggest  search and rescue operation the Mediterranean has ever seen, and the effort is reflecting itself in the statistics. From the beginning of June there has been one confirmed death so far in the Mediterranean. Leila Østerbø mapped out who is out there doing what.

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The Italian navy showing off some of its military vessels which often double up as Europe’s migrant rescue stations in the Mediterranean. Photo: Marina Militare Italiana

There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of deaths at sea since the EU’s Operation Triton was expanded following April’s tragedy, which saw an estimated 850 migrants die in a single shipwreck.

An investigation by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) confirmed the shocking death toll, which included 350 Eritreans, along with people from Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, making this the deadliest incident ever recorded in the Mediterranean.

Under pressure from a shocked public across Europe,  EU leaders agreed to expand Europe’s search and rescue effort, but to road her has been a windy one.

On October 18, 2013 Italy launched Mare Nostrum, an operation which was long held as the benchmark for the sort of effort that Europe should sponsor in the Mediterranean.

The drive was entirely financed by the Italian government at a rate of €9 million per month. Earlier that month, on October 3 and 11, two boats capsized. In the first shipwreck 360 people died when the 20-metre fishing boat they were travelling on got into trouble less than a quarter mile off Lampedusa. Eight days later, another 30 people, possibly more, died 75 kilometres off the Italian island.

As a result, Mare Nostrum began rescuing people just outside Libyan waters saving 140 000 people within a year. However, in October 2014, Italy decided to stop the operation, following several warnings that it could not afford to sustain such an expensive effort on its own.

Maritime assets infographicsThe mission was replaced by Triton on 9th October, 2014 – a vastly reduced initiative which had border patrol rather than search and rescue as its mission. The operation’s budget was €4.32 million, where 90% was funded by the EU. It also had a much smaller area of operation with patrolling restricted to an area 30 miles off Europe’s shores – a long distance from where most of the shipwrecks happen.

Analysts had warned that the shift would inevitably result in more deaths. The prediction was correct, by the end of April 1,727 people had died, compared to just 56 during the same period in 2014.

The response to the deaths  on April 23 translated into a commitment to triple Triton’s budget to €120 million for 2015-2016. The UK, which until then had been critical of Mare Nostrum, because it claimed it acted as a pull factor, agreed to send the warship HMS Bulwark, to assist in the rescue operation.

Today, the EU’s effort is the biggest there ever was in terms of assets and areas covered in the Mediterranean with ships and aircraft and assistance provided by 26 countries.


The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) ushered in a new area of privately-funded rescue missions. Photo: MOAS

But there’s a new phenomenon, which was initiated last year with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), the first privately-funded search-and-rescue operation. More NGOs are stepping in to assist.

The international NGO Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) partnered with MOAS to provide medical assistance from onboard the organisation’s 43-metre Phoenix. However, it also launched its own vessel, the Bourbon Argos. On June 13, MSF Barcelona will be sending out a second vessel, Dignity I, to Sicily.

Others are following suit. The Norwegian Society for Search and Rescue (NSSR) has offered a ship to it’s government which will be sent out on June 16.

There is also SeaWatch this year. This latest initiative will operate more like a “rescue phone” out at sea, off the Libyan coast. The NGO is planning to set sail on 17 June.

On top of this explicit rescue effort, the Italian government has also deployed a military mission, Mare Sicuro (Secure Sea), whose mandate is  to surveil the seas off Libyan coast as part of a security and anti-terrorism effort.

However, assets from the Mare Sicuro operation have been known to intervene at the request of the Rescue and Coordination Centre in Rome throughout the past months.

There is also the often unsung contribution of commercial ships and their crews, which find themselves having to handle complex rescue missions with vessels that are not ideal for the type of scenarios they come across.

Last year alone, some 40,000 migrants were rescued from the Mediterranean by commercial vessels, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.