On November 6th 2017, one of the most tragic incidents between the Libyan Coast Guard and an NGO vessel took place.

The crew of the MS Sea-Watch 3 had already been on mission for several days in the central Mediterranean Sea when, on the morning of 6th November 2017 at 5.53 am, it received a distress call about a SAR[1] case. Thereupon the Sea-Watch 3 changed its course immediately to proceed to the specified position North of Tripoli. About half an hour later a call came in from the MRCC Rome[2] asking the ship to proceed, giving more exact coordinates, and to look out for a rubber boat which must have departed from the Tripoli region. The Head of Mission, Johannes Baer, stayed in contact with the MRCC Rome as they informed the Sea-Watch crew that the Libyan Coast Guard was close by. The Sea-Watch 3 proceeded to the specified position as ordered by the MRCC Rome when the Libyan Coast Guard vessel 648 approached them, shouting incomprehensibly via radio call. The Libyan vessel passed without any further communication heading towards the rubber boat. After calling the MRCC again for updates at 8.22 am, the Sea-Watch 3 was asked to proceed to rescue the passengers of the rubber boat. A European war ship, the French navy vessel ‘Premier-Maître L’Herin’ F792, which was ​nearby, offered to support the rescue operations of the Sea- Watch 3. By their communication and their actions, the crew of the French vessel implied to be accepting the status of On Scene Coordinator of the NGO ship, since it was best equipped for the rescue.

At 9.10 am, finally having arrived on scene, they became witness of the crew of the Libyan Coast Guard vessel 648 attempting to take over the rescue – despite their boat not being equipped for such rescue activities – and to take as many migrants as possible back to Libya. The action was performed in a very dangerous and unprofessional manner[3], as it has often been the case before[4]

During these rescue activities, the migrants were forced to climb on the coastguard boat in spite of their exhaustion as the Libyan Coast Guard vessel was lacking inflatable boats to transfer the migrants. As the Libyan forces started to threaten and beat the migrants with a bullwhip, they caused a panic on the boat. As a result, people who were already on the Libyan patrol boot jumped back into the water, trying to escape the Libyan “rescue activities”[5]. The crew on the Sea-Watch 3 RHIBs[6] tried to save as many people in the water as they could. In the end, they managed to take 59 people on board of the NGO vessel and later to a port of safety.[7] One child could only be salvaged after already being deceased.[8] Realising that they were losing control of the situation, the Libyan Coast Guard boat sped up to full speed, trying to leave the scene, while one person was still clinging to the starboard ladder outside.

Meanwhile, an Italian Navy Helicopter observed the scene and asked the Libyans to stop, especially since there were still people in the water. When the LYCG vessel did not reply to any radio calls, the Italians tried to stop it with a flight manoeuvre. After a few hundred metres, the LYCG vessel finally slowed down and the person clinging to the ladder could eventually climb on board.

It was 9:40 a.m. when the Libyan vessel left the scene, heading south, after threatening to open fire at the Sea-Watch 3. Later the LYCG announced that they had saved 47 people.

According to the UNHCR and Amnesty International, about 50 people have died during this operation[9]. These are lives that could have been saved, even though the work of NGOs is getting more difficult from year to year, since the EU is actively criminalising and prosecuting them for protecting human lives and rights at sea. [10]


[1] Search and Rescue

[2] Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre

[3] Amnesty International, 11 December 2017, Report: “Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion – Abuses against Europe-bound refugees and migrants” https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2017/12/libya-european-governments-complicit-in-horrific-abuse-of-refugees-and-migrants/

[4] Human Rights Watch “EU: Shifting Rescue to Libya Risks Lives”, 19 June 2017, https://reliefweb.int/report/libya/eu-shifting-rescue-libya-risks-lives

[5] Reuters, “Five migrants die when boat sinks”, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-libya/five-migrants-die-when-boat-sinks-libyan-coast-guard-and-german-ngo-blame-each-other-idUSKBN1D61R1

[6] Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat

[7] Sea-Watch, “Breaking: Dramatic first rescue operation for Sea-Watch 3” 6 November 2017,              https://sea-watch.org/en/dramatic-rescue-operation-sea-watch-3/

[8] Daniele Biella, “Ministro Minniti mi incontri, le racconto l’orrore”, Vita, 7 November 2017, http://www.vita.it/it/article/2017/11/07/ministro-minniti-mi-incontri-le-racconto-lorrore/145020/

[9] Huffington Post, “Spanische NGO wird von libyscher Küstenwache mit Waffen bedroht”, 18 March 2018 https://www.huffingtonpost.de/entry/spanische-ngo-wird-von-libyscher-kustenwache-mit-waffen_de_5aae6428e4b0a1ecfa0e3b85

[10] Giving an overview about the criminalization of humanitarian aid at the Central Med: Forensic Oceanography (Lorenzo Pezzani & Charles Heller) “Blaming the Rescuers” https://blamingtherescuers.org; Report regarding recent cases of criminalization: MSF, “Central Mediterranean: European governments are obstructing lifesaving rescues and returning people to unsafe Libya”, 21 March 2018 http://www.msf.org/en/article/central-mediterranean-european-governments-are-obstructing-lifesaving-rescues-and-returning

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