FRA: 2019 update – NGO ships involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean and criminal investigations

(European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) In 2018, some 2,299 people are estimated to have died or gone missing at sea while crossing the sea to reach Europe to escape war or persecution or to pursue a better life. This is on average more than six people per day. Before mid-2017, a significant share of migrants in distress at sea have been rescued by civil society vessels deployed with a humanitarian mandate to reduce fatalities and bring rescued migrants to safety. In 2018, however, authorities in some Member States viewed civil society-deployed rescue vessels with hostility. As a reaction, they seized rescue vessels, arrested crew members, and initiated legal procedures against them (more than a dozen altogether). In some cases, rescue vessels were blocked in harbours due to flag issues.

To provide a comprehensive overview of the phenomenon, FRA published a note in October 2018 entitled “Fundamental rights considerations: NGO ships involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean and criminal investigations”. The note draws attention to the recent trend of initiating criminal and administrative proceedings against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other private entities deploying rescue vessels. These actions resulted in most NGOs stopping their operations by the end of 2018. The below map pictures the rescue vessels who have been still operational in June 2019, alongside those who had to stop their activities, also indicating past and ongoing legal proceedings against the vessels and/or their crew members.

Map showing NGO ships involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea between 2016 and 1 June 2019

Map showing NGO ships involved in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea between 2016-1 June 2019

FRA continued to follow closely this issue and updated the two tables accompanying the above-mentioned note to give a snapshot on further developments since August 2018 up until June 2019. The information on this page (updated Table 1) gives a fresh overview of all NGOs and their vessels and reconnaissance aircrafts involved in search and rescue (SAR) operations since 2016 in the Mediterranean – also showing whether they have been subject to legal proceedings. The compilation demonstrates that only a few NGO rescue vessels were operational in June 2019 due to various reasons, including ship seizures or de-flagging ordered by the EU Member State authorities.

In the downloadable file at the bottom of the page, updated Table 2 provides further details on the ongoing or closed investigations and administrative or criminal proceedings against private entities involved in SAR operations as at June 2019, of which FRA is aware (having reviewed publicly available sources). It shows that although more Member States opened such legal cases compared to last year (Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain), many opened cases ended with an acquittal or were discontinued due to the lack of evidence, while others were still pending at the time of the update.

The applicable EU and international legal and policy framework remains unchanged, hence the note’s related legal analysis is not reproduced but can be consulted via this link. All information is up-to-date until 1 June 2019.

FRA will keep following further developments and reporting on this through its Quarterly Bulletins on migration-related fundamental rights concerns covering 15 selected EU Member States.

— Have a look at the table —