The Easter Weekend 2017. On Saturday the 15th of April, a mass rescue operation of approximately 3.000 people in distress at sea took place. The rescue vessels Iuventa (JUGEND RETTET e.V.), Sea-Eye (SEA-EYE e.V.) and Phoenix were involved. The whole rescue lasted until the next day. The tender Rhein, which is part of the European-led operation SOPHIA, assisted in this highly complex situation. Due to this support, 1.000 persons in distress at sea could be brought to safety during the Saturday’s events. The Iuventa called for their assistance via an MAYDAYRELAYS call.

Meanwhile, the vessel Phoenix (MOAS) together with the tug Ringhio had to care about 1.700 people in distress at sea. They received no assistance. According to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome, all other rescue vessels within the Mediterranean Sea were already occupied with rescue operations somewhere else. Later the Italian government stated that during the Easter weekend more than 7.000-10.000 persons arrived in Italy.

Later on, about 1.700 people were remaining on the water and thereby in an unsafe life- threatening situation. Of this amount of people in need for assistance, approximately 400 were on the Phoenix and 40 on the Ringhio. The rest of them were in instable rubber boats, closely to the bigger rescue vessel Phoenix. Its captain has also sent out a MAYDAYRELAYS call. Early on the 16 the of April (about midnight), the vessels Iuventa and Sea-Eye were approaching the scenario. The Iuventa’s intention was to take persons on board to carry out a trans-shipment later to a bigger rescue asset with more capacity. At this moment, the OOC panther was on its way from Malta to the SAR zone.

According MRCC Rome, ships of the Italian Coastguard where on their way to the area as well. During the embarking of people in distress at sea, which were saved from several rubber boats, a bigger wooden boat approached the Iuventa very closely. This has led to the dangerous situation, in which several people jumped into the water and tried to climb onto the Iuventa. This has led to an overcrowding of the ship. The MY IUVENTA went to a standby position and requested disembarking from MRCC Rome.

The ASSO VENTINOVE and the GREGORETTI CP 920 had been directed to the MY IUVENTA. However, in the morning of the 16th of April, more than 2.000 new persons arrived in the SAR Zone. Consequently, the already mentioned vessels had to embark several persons in distress cases before they could relieve the MY IUVENTA of her passengers. In the end, they were therefore, unable to assist the IUVENTA.

The Iuventa’s Rhib assisted together with the Phoenix, the airplane Moonbird (Sea-Watch e.V.) and Sea eye several cases to board, for example, the cargo vessel Tuna 1. Leaving the area, the Iuventa had to knowingly abandon a non-specified amount of rubber boats with people in distress at sea without any prospective of assistance.

The lack of opportunity to disembark persons from the deck of the MY IUVENTA and the upcoming bad weather created the situation in which the MY IUVENTA could only head into the wind and proceed northwards. This situation was an imminent threat to the life of everyone on board the MY IUVENTA and the ship itself. The Captain of the MY IUVENTA sent at 13:00 (16th of April) a MAYDAY to receive all and any help available in the area as soon as possible. The MRCC Rome responded via satellite phone, there were no other responses.

During the morning of the 16th of April, it was impossible for the assets on scene to keep an overview how many cases where on the water. The capacities of everyone Involved were at their limits: fatigue and space, a lack of sufficient ships and personal for such an amount of people in distress.

The Easter days have demonstrated a devastating impact, if less rescue assets are on scene or nearby. It has especially shown, that less ships of the European-led operation SOPHIA and other military vessels were operating in the area near the 12 nautical miles’ zone compared to 2016. Also, the complete absence of any Frontex ship was visible and raises questions about their mandate per se. That 3 days of outstandingly challenge for all assets involved made clear: without the work of the SAR NGOs, there might have happened a tragedy at sea, unseen by the eyes of the European society.

Either due to a willingly accepted status quo of the political decision-makers or due to their sheer blindness for the humanitarian emergency at sea, there were absolutely no sufficient political response to the emergency and thereby increasing mortality rate within the Central Mediterranean. The NGOs, are remaining in a dilemma at sea. They have to substitute European state’s responsibility to carry out rescue mission of people in distress. It is not their responsibility, but a strong understanding of the humanitarian imperative and missing solution by European Union’s (EU) leaderships, leaves no other choice, but saving lives and holding up human rights at sea.

For the NGO JUGEND RETTET, this was a decisive moment, it has emphasized the following: The non-state actor has evolved from an additional support to a core unit of Search and Rescue. Instead of finding solutions, provided by EU leaders, a defamation campaign has just started in the aftermath of the Easter weekend. Nowadays, in 2018, the NGOs are facing a criminalization of their actions of solidarity, which are in adherence with all applicable humanitarian law as well as the law of the sea. However, this criminalization is overshadowing the underlying cause: The criminalisation of the people in need for assistance, that are seeking for international protection: The refugees themselves.

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