The Aquarius is awaiting final instructions on the safe harbor (“port of safety”) for the 629 survivors welcomed on board between Saturday to Sunday.

In the night of Saturday to Sunday, the Aquarius, the humanitarian ship chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE and operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), carried out six rescue and transfer operations in the span of just nine hours – all under instruction from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination (IMRCC). Conducted in extremely difficult conditions, and in excellent collaboration with the other actors present, 629 lives were saved. A few hours after the Aquarius had received instructions from the competent maritime authorities to proceed to a safe harbor (“port of safety”), the press reported on a statement by the Italian authorities announcing the “closure” of Italian ports. The Aquarius is now halted between Malta and Italy, pending instructions from the competent maritime authorities.

The Aquarius, the only humanitarian ship in the central Mediterranean this weekend

At the end of its regular stopover in Catania (Sicily), the Aquarius returned to sea Friday night to patrol the search and rescue area as soon as possible, as no other humanitarian ship was in the area at the time.

At 7 am, on Saturday 9 June, the ship was instructed by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) to proceed to the Farwah oil zone, where boats in distress had been reported. Moments later, the Aquarius received a distress signal indicating a boat adrift, carrying about 150 people. The IMRCC then asked the Aquarius to change its course to the position indicated. The Italian merchant ship MV Asso Ventiquattro, which at the time was closer to the boat in distress, also began heading in the same direction. Around 2 pm, however, the Italian MRCC informed the crew of the Aquarius that the Libyan Coastguard was assuming coordination of the rescue operations, instead asking the Aquarius to proceed to the transfer of about 280 survivors aboard three Italian Coastguard ships. The Coastguard had rescued one of the boats in distress, while the other two boats had been rescued by merchant ships before survivors were transferred to the Italian Coastguard.

Six rescue operations between Saturday and Sunday

While the Aquarius was heading to its new destination, two boats in distress, with, according to the information received, more than 120 people on board, were reported by the IMRCC. The latter instructed the Aquarius to rescue the two boats before carrying out the three transfers (mentioned above). As soon as the Aquarius arrived on scene – more than 50 nautical miles off the coast – at the end of the afternoon, the simultaneous rescue of the two boats in distress began. During the operation, while it was already dark, one of the two rubber boats broke, dragging dozens of people into the water. In critical conditions, SOS MEDITERRANEE’s rescue team managed to recover 229 survivors who were safely brought back aboard the Aquarius.

Immediately thereafter, the Aquarius began the transfer of 129 people from Italian Coastguard ship (CP 312), followed by 64 others from a second Italian Coastguard ship (CP 319) and finally 88 survivors from a third Italian Coastguard ship (CP 267). The ship San Giusto then lent a hand to the teams of the Aquarius for a final transfer: 119 shipwrecked were transferred from Italian merchant ship MV Jolly Vanadio to the Aquarius.

“The survivors spent many hours hours drifting”

“Despite a very critical rescue, we luckily do not have a medical emergency right now,” said MSF doctor David Beversluis. “But when the boat broke, a man sank in front of the eyes of the rescuers, who managed to catch him and revive him once out of the water. He is now out of danger. All the survivors are exhausted and dehydrated because they spent many hours adrift in these boats: there are many survivors with skin burns from the mixture of gasoline and seawater. After conducting several consultations on board, we can say that these men and women have had little, if any, access to medical care while detained in Libya”.

Almost a quarter of the survivors, stemming from 26 different countries, are from Sudan.

Stranded between Malta and Italy, the Aquarius is awaiting instructions from the competent authorities

After six hours of operations coordinated by the MRCC Rome and with the assistance of a helicopter and an Italian naval ship (the San Giusto), 629 people were brought safely aboard the Aquarius. Among them are 123 unaccompanied minors and 7 pregnant women. The Aquarius began heading North on Sunday morning, in expectation of a safe port to disembark the 629 survivors. As the vessel was sailing north on instruction from the IMRCC, conflicting information emerged in the media, with the IMRCC allegedly requesting that Maltese authorities provide a port for disembarkation. However, no formal landing instructions for Malta were directly communicated to the Aquarius by the Italian maritime authorities, nor by the Maltese maritime authorities themselves. On the evening of Sunday 10 June, the Aquarius was halted on instruction from Rome’s MRCC, 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.

Sophie Beau, vice-president of SOS MEDITERRANEE’s international network, said: “The Aquarius is currently on stand-by in international waters between Malta and Italy, pending urgent instructions on the ‘place of safety’ to be designated by the competent maritime authorities. This is a new and worrying situation that must not be prolonged: because, with 629 people on board, we are already well over our maximum capacity. The safety and the care of the survivors on board cannot be assured beyond a few hours. We cannot imagine that political concerns prevail over the humanitarian situation of these hundreds of people just saved from drowning, hours after having left the hell that is Libya.”


SOS Mediterranée