Mediterranean Incident Report - May 2016

Mediterranean Incident Report - May 2016

LE Eithne Operation Triton ca.wikipedia 140

As we approach the start of the Mediterranean yachting season, it is vital for captains, management and owners to be aware of the latest information concerning the migration of refugees and to plan ahead. With the worsening situation in the Mediterranean, and with over 1000 dead already this year, the importance of pre-passage planning is vital for all yachts and merchant vessels.  

The Mediterranean Sea is the main gateway to Europe and there are three major sea routes: (1) the Central route; (2) the Eastern Mediterranean route and (3) the Western route. 

Each route is used by different nationalities and their reasons for leaving their home countries are diverse. 

Due to Balkan countries closing their land borders and the recent EU-Turkey deal, the number of arrivals via the Eastern route has drastically declined in the last several weeks. The Central route has now re-emerged as the most frequently travelled sea route to reach Europe. Despite naval assets in the area, with involvement of numerous Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), over an 18-month period more than 1,000 merchant ships were diverted to assist migrants and refugees in distress at sea.

In 2015, more than 1 million people fled from northern Africa and the Middle East via various sea routes to Europe (see the Frontex map below). More than 3,700 migrants died trying to cross (compared to 3,279 in 2014), of which about 77% occurred along the Central route. 

As of 27 April there were at least 183,017 arrivals by sea registered in the Mediterranean so far this year. In 2015 that number was achieved by July. Historically, due to favourable weather, July, August and September have the highest number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. However, since last year there has been a steady flow of migrants attempting to cross regardless of the weather, with October seeing the highest number of attempts. 

Although less frequently travelled, there have been incidents where migrants and refugees departed by boat from Egypt to Italy. A recent example is the rescue of more than 300 people on 6 April 2016. The boat had travelled from Egypt to the Strait of Sicily, when Italy's coast guard and Frontex went to aid the boat and its 314 passengers.

Map of the European Migrant Crisis 2015 cropped
Map of the European Migrant Crisis 2015 

Eastern Mediterranean Route 

Since last July, the number of migrants and refugees using the Eastern Mediterranean route grew exponentially and temporarily replaced the Central Mediterranean route as the main route for migrants heading to Europe. Departures typically start in Turkey in overloaded boats (often dinghies) with the  goal to reach one of the Greek islands, such as Kos and Lesbos.

The top three nationalities using this route are Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqi. Between 1-27 April 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered 154,661 arrivals by sea in Greece alone (compared to 853,650 in 2015). Despite the short geographical distance between Turkey and Greece, an estimated 376 people died in the first four months this year, and recently the numbers of attempted crossings has drastically decreased.

This is partially due to:

(a) Balkan countries closing their land borders and (b) the EU-Turkey deal which took effect in April. Since then about 340 people have been deported from Lesbos to Turkey thus far. We anticipate this trend to continue. 

The Central Mediterranean Route

This route is currently the most frequently travelled by migrants and refugees. Historically, the vast majority of people using this gateway have been from Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia, with only a small percentage from Syria. However, since the start of 2016, the top three nationalities are now Nigerians, Gambians and Senegalese. The Central route is the deadliest sea path in the world. As of 27-April an estimated 863 people died in the first four months alone, compared to 2,892 deaths in the whole of 2015.

Departures typically start in Libya, with the goal to reach Italy or Malta. People crossing the Mediterranean Sea are put in overcrowded unseaworthy boats by people smugglers, often without life jackets. Once leaving the Libyan coast, they usually run into trouble, such as running out of gasoline, engine issues or the boat taking in water.

Given the  distance between Libya and their destination, as well as the conditions of the boats, it is unlikely that the travellers will successfully reach their destination on their own. It is more probable for them to be picked up by EU or Italian naval vessels, an NGO or commercial vessel in the area. Since the boats leaving Libya carry often hundreds of people, if it capsizes, the casualty rate is therefore much higher here than in any of the other routes.

Challenging Rescue:

If the migrants or refugees have a cell phone, they will try to contact Italian authorities to let them know they are in distress. Coordination of the SAR in international waters is in correspondence with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome. If they are in distress and do not have a phone, their only hope is to be discovered by another boat.

Arrival and Departure Points

The image below shows the different departure and arrival points in the Mediterranean. In 2015, there were 106 arrivals registered in Malta and 153,052 in Italy. Despite cold weather and rough seas, there are still migrants leaving from Libya. According to the IOM, as of 27 April, there were 27,265 arrivals in Italy, with another 800,000 people still waiting in Libya trying to cross the Mediterranean. Improved weather conditions will inreasingly entice more people to cross.

In addition to the EU’s mission Operation TRITON, the Libyan Coast Guard and the Italian Coast Guard and Navy are also participating in search and rescue missions. Despite these efforts, over 1,000 merchant ships have been involved in rescue operations during an 18-month period, assisting over 65,000 people.

A recent example is the rescue of 26 migrants on 29 April 2016. Their rubber boat had taken on water and an Italian merchant ship in the area was diverted to render assistance to the distressed migrants, which were about seven miles off the Libyan coast. The migrants later disembarked onto a Coast Guard ship and were taken to Lampedusa, Italy. In addition to naval assets, there are also several NGOs involved in search and rescue missions off Libya.

We anticipate that the political situation in Libya will continue to be unsettled, resulting in a continuous flow of migrants taking the Central route. Once the weather warms up and the sea becomes calmer, we expect the numbers of migrants to rise to the 2015 levels again or to even set another record in 2016. 

Migrants in the Mediterranean Sea

The rescue operation in the Central route is particularly challenging, because the migrants and refugees often have spent an extended time living in inhumane conditions in Libya before paying people smugglers for their transport to Europe. They might also have been on an overcrowded boat for hours  or days, surrounded by water and desperate to stay alive. Once a rescue boat is spotted, the people in distress often panic creating chaos on board and making the rescue operation even more difficult. Boats have capsized because passengers were crowding to one side.

Given the understandably distressed state of mind of the migrants and refugees, managing a large, desperate crowd during a rescue operation is very dangerous for all parties involved. Carefully reviewing company’s procedures, planning and training prior to transiting the Mediterranean for all Masters and their crew is highly recommended.

Merchant vessels have been diverted to assist migrants and refugees in distress. Given the usually large number of people in distress - in particular in the Central Mediterranean route, this is a complex issue for the yachting industry. If you encounter a migrant and refugee boat, please immediately notify the appropriate Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC).

Despite the low security threat, a rescue at sea operation can be challenging, particularly for a vessel’s Master and a small crew trying to deal with hundreds of people in distress. We advise you to follow your company’s Ship Security Plan and to consult the Rescue at Sea guide (developed by IMO, ICS and UNHCR).

There are number of factors to consider (as per ICS guide): 

  • The immediacy of the threat to life of the persons on the vessel or craft.

  • The risks posed to ship, crew and those to be rescued during a large scale rescue operation.

  • The preparedness of the ship for embarkation. 

  • The proximity of Search and Rescue (SAR) services Refugee and Migrant Overview, UNHCR viewpoint excerpt.

LE Eithne Operation Triton ca.wikipedia2


Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. Their situation is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognized as "refugees" with access to assistance from States, UNHCR, and other organizations. They are so recognized precisely because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere. These are people for whom denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.

Refugees are defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as other legal texts, such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, remain the cornerstone of modern refugee protection. One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat.

The protection of refugees has many aspects. These include safety from being returned to the dangers they have fled; access to asylum procedures that are fair and efficient; and measures to ensure that their basic human rights are respected to allow them to live in dignity and safety while helping them to find a longer-term solution. States bear the primary responsibility for this protection.


Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.

For individual governments, this distinction is important. Countries deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and processes. Countries deal with refugees through norms of refugee protection and asylum that are defined in both national legislation and international law. Countries have specific responsibilities towards anyone seeking asylum on their territories or at their borders. UNHCR helps countries deal with their asylum and refugee protection responsibilities.

So, back to Europe and the large numbers of people arriving this year and last year by boats in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. Which are they? Refugees or migrants?

In fact, they happen to be both. The majority of people arriving this year in Italy and Greece especially have been from countries mired in war or which otherwise are considered to be 'refugee-producing' and for whom international protection is needed. However, a smaller proportion is from elsewhere, and for many of these individuals, the term 'migrant' would be correct.

So, at UNHCR we say 'refugees and migrants' when referring to movements of people by sea or in other circumstances where we think both groups may be present.

With the worsening migrant situation in the Mediterranean and with over 1000 dead already this year, the importance of pre-passage planning is fundamental to any yacht. Securewest have the capability to specify SAR hotspots, incorporated into a Maritime Threat Assessment for the passage of the region.

For further information, or to find out more about Securewest’s services please contact:

Wayne Britton

*Image credits: CC BY 2.0; Benuter Chumwa via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

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