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Page 1

Refugees and migRants in peRil
in the centRal mediteRRanean

Page 2


The EU and its member states are imposing a survival test on
refugees and migrants. Unable to enter the EU through safe
and regular routes, tens of thousands, desperate for asylum and
a better life, attempt to cross the central Mediterranean each
year. In the first nine months of 2014, over 2,500 people died
trying – a new record. This must stop.

Through the testimony of survivors, this report documents
the perils of the journey. It analyzes the long-standing
shortcomings in the search and rescue services provided in
the central Mediterranean and makes recommendations for
their improvement.

Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum has temporarily papered over
these problems, but it is not a sufficient or durable solution.
An adequately funded and appropriately mandated EU-led
search and rescue operation is urgently needed to fulfil a
shared EU responsibility.

September 2014
Index: EUR 05/006/2014

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Lives adrift
Refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean

Amnesty International September 2014 Index: EUR 05/006/2014

36 36

the same criteria for all boats. An Italian boat in those conditions would be regarded as

Malta, however, takes the view that there needs to be a request for assistance and a clear and
immediate danger of loss of life. As refugees and migrants’ boats often head for Italy and do
not want to end up in Malta, Malta has used this interpretation to its advantage to minimize
its SAR interventions.91 According to a FRA research, when a Maltese vessel approaches a
boat carrying refugees and migrants, officers determine if it constitutes a situation of distress
and ask them if they want to be rescued by the AFM or whether they prefer to continue
towards Italy. The FRA found that “Occasionally, migrants may be dissuaded by rescue
officers from going to Malta as these are informed that Malta has a mandatory detention
policy”.92 Malta applies a policy of automatic detention of up to 18 months for all migrants
and 12 months for all asylum-seekers arriving irregularly to the country – a policy which
breaches international law.93 AFM officers interviewed by Amnesty International said that the
AFM would always rescue refugees and migrants who may be in need of urgent medical care
and that they also provide supplies needed to continue the journey and life jackets.94

There have been reports of incidents where boats were approached by the AFM and later may
have sunk. One such incident occurred in May 2007. A photograph of the boat was taken by
an AFM aircraft and reached the media, showing 53 people in a small boat.95 The boat
reportedly disappeared, while the Maltese authorities claimed that there was no request of
assistance from the boat.96

An EU Regulation adopted in April 2014 includes provisions which EU states must respect
during SAR operations at sea when acting within joint Frontex operations at sea. It is not
binding on EU member states when acting within their national spheres of competence.
When deciding whether a vessel is in distress, search and rescue units assigned to Frontex
operations should take all relevant elements into account, in particular:

a) the existence of a request for assistance, although such a request shall not be the
sole factor for determining the existence of a distress situation;

b) the seaworthiness of the vessel and the likelihood that the vessel will not reach its
final destination;

c) the number of persons on board in relation to the type and condition of the vessel;
d) the availability of necessary supplies such as fuel, water and food, to reach a shore;
e) the presence of qualified crew and command of the vessel;
f) the availability and capability of safety, navigation and communication equipment;
g) the presence of persons on board in urgent need of medical assistance;
h) the presence of deceased persons on board;
i) the presence of pregnant women or of children on board; and
j) the weather and sea conditions, including weather and marine forecasts.97

The new Regulation leaves a margin of appreciation in determining whether a distress
situation exists to the search and rescue units, which should assess on a case-by-case basis,
using this list of factors to evaluate the decision. The Regulation also clarifies that a distress
situation should not depend on a request of assistance.

The common acceptance of this broad definition of distress by all EU member states in

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Lives adrift
Refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean

Index: EUR 05/006/2014 Amnesty International September 2014


relation to national level search and rescue operations is urgently needed. This would ensure
that consistent standards of safety are applied in the central Mediterranean rather than
leaving safety of navigations to chance, with the same boat being regarded in distress by one
SAR authority and able to continue its journey by another.

As will be seen below, the AFM aircraft which spotted the refugees and migrants’ boat which
shipwrecked on 11 October 2013 reported that it was not stationary, but sailing – the
implication being that it was not in distress. The Maltese Minister for Home Affairs and
National Security, interviewed by Amnesty International, also stated that the boat was
“galleggiando” [floating], and thus not in imminent danger. The boat capsized 45 minutes
later, bringing to death about 200 people.

The SOLAS Convention at Chapter V, Regulation 33, and the SAR Convention at Chapter 3,
para. 3.1.9, require states to arrange for the disembarkation of persons rescued at sea as
soon as reasonably practicable. The SAR Convention defines rescue as “an operation to
retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them
to a place of safety” (Annex Chapter 1 para. 1.3.2), but does not define what a place of
safety is.

Arguably the main gap in the current SAR regime is the lack of agreed criteria to determine
in which state the rescued people should disembark. In principle, several states have some
links to the situation and could be places for disembarkation: the flag state of the rescuing
unit or of the vessel in distress; the next port of call on the rescuing ship’s planned route; the
closest port to the place where the rescue occurred; the state from which the vessel took the
sea; the state competent for the relevant SAR zone; and the countries of nationality of those
rescued. Yet, no state is currently under an obligation to let rescued persons disembark onto
its territory.

In the Mediterranean, EU states’ concerns regarding migration are key to resolving the
problem of disembarkation. As a consequence of the Dublin Regulation, states worry that if
they allow refugees and migrants to disembark, they will then become responsible for their
reception, for processing their asylum application, for organizing the return of those who are
not granted protection, and for the long-term integration of those who are recognized as
needing protection, including unaccompanied minors. This is a particular challenge for
Malta, given its size and available resources.

As described above, in an effort to address the issue of disembarkation, on 20 May 2004 the
Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO adopted Amendments to the SOLAS and SAR

The SOLAS Convention, Chapter V, Regulation 33, 1.1.1, as amended, states that:

“Contracting Governments shall co-ordinate and co-operate to ensure that masters of ships
providing assistance by embarking persons in distress at sea are released from their
obligations with minimum further deviation from the ships’ intended voyage, provided that
releasing the master of the ship from the obligations under the current regulation does not
further endanger the safety of life at sea. The Contracting Government responsible for the

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WhetheR in a high-pROfile cOnflict
OR a fORgOtten cORneR Of the
glOBe, amnestY internatiOnaL
campaigns fOR justice, fReedOm
and dignitY fOR all and seeKs tO
galVaniZe puBlic suppORt tO Build
a BetteR WORld

What can YOu dO?

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This report is published as part of
Amnesty International’s S.O.S. Europe campaign.
To find out more visit:

First published in 2014 by
Amnesty International Ltd
Peter Benenson House
1 Easton Street
London WC1X 0DW
United Kingdom

© Amnesty International 2014

Index: EUR 05/006/2014
Original language: English
Printed by Amnesty International,
International Secretariat, United Kingdom

All rights reserved. This publication is copyright, but may
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The copyright holders request that all such use be registered
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Cover photo: Asylum seekers and migrants from Africa
being rescued at sea and taken aboard an Italian navy ship,
8 June 2014. © Massimo Sestini / eyevine

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