The deaths of more than 350 migrants in October 2013 after the shipwreck of an overloaded unseaworthy boat off the Italian island of Lampedusa shocked the world and reignited debate over the European Union’s response to the increasing numbers of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

At first, frontline EU Member States moved swiftly to set up search-and-rescue operations, adopting an approach in keeping with international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which require rescue of “persons in distress” regardless of their legal status.

This response proved short-lived.  

The European Union changed its approach at the height of the 2015-16 migration peak. Shifting from a decentralised system of national rescue operations, the EU member states instead concentrated on border management via Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and prioritised protecting its borders, increasing surveillance, and criminalising search-and-rescue operations by NGOs. 

Shipwrecks of October 2013:

October 3, 2013: 368 migrants died trying to sail to Lampedusa (Italy) from Libya. 

October 11, 2013: a boat carrying mostly Syrian asylum seekers sank in the Mediterranean. Among the 268 people who drowned were at least 60 children. 

In 2016, the Italian Senate officially recognised October 3 as a National Remembrance Day for the Victims of Migration. 

Mare Nostrum (2013-2014)

On October 18, 2013, the Italian government launched “Mare Nostrum”, a military and humanitarian operation aimed at tackling the humanitarian emergency in the Strait of Sicily, due to the increase in arrivals. 

Under Italy’s “Mare Nostrum” operation, some 150,000 people, many of them from Africa and the Middle East, arrived safely in Europe. 

But the initiative was massively expensive — costing more than $11 million a month — and politically controversial, with migration opponents claiming it encouraged smugglers, while Italian authorities complained they were abandoned by Europe and left alone to respond.

The Operation ended on October 31, 2014, coinciding with the start of a new operation called Triton. 

Operation Triton (2014 – 2018) 

Operation Triton was launched by Frontex (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders) in November 2014 in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Interior and the Italian Coast Guard. 

With less than one-third the funding of its predecessor, Mare Nostrum, and only 65 personnel, Triton initially confined its area of operations to 30 nautical miles beyond the Italian coastline, severely limiting its capacity to conduct search-and-rescue activities. 

According to IOM, deaths at sea increased by nine after the end of Operation Mare Nostrum. 

Operation Triton ended on February 1, 2018, when it was replaced by Operation Themis, which, like its predecessor, is led by Frontex, in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Interior; and “has an increased focus on law enforcement activities." 

Operation Sophia and IRINI (2015- 2025) 

After more than 1,200 migrants died in two shipwrecks in April 2015, Frontex expanded Triton’s reach to 138 nautical miles off the Italian coast and the European Union launched a military mission, European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EU-NavFOR Med), also known as Operation Sophia, to more comprehensively address trafficking and smuggling. Sophia extended its patrol activities into Libya’s territorial waters and focused on targeting smugglers’ vessels. 

Neither operation had a specific search-and-rescue mandate, and the proportion of rescues conducted by Triton and Sophia steadily decreased during their tenures. In parallel, the number of deaths and disappearances in the Central Mediterranean route steadily increased between 2016 and 2019.

Operation IRINI (EUNAVFOR MED IRINI) was launched on 31 March 2020 with the primary mission to enforce the United Nations arms embargo to Libya due to the Second Libyan Civil War. Operation IRINI is a European Union military operation under the umbrella of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). 

NGOs filling the void in the Central Mediterranean 

In response to the spike in crossings in the Mediterranean Sea and the void left by the EU policy, NGOs began to expand their search-and-rescue operations. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of NGO search-and-rescue vessels active along the Central Mediterranean route more than tripled, from four to 13, according to the Italian Coast Guard. 

NGOs’ importance rose over time to account for 38 percent of total rescues in 2017 and 40 percent of rescues in the first half of 2018. (source: ICG reports)

The deal between Italy and Libya (2017 – 2023) 

In February 2017, the Italian government signed an EU-sponsored agreement with the Libyan government: the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Migration. Renewed in 2020 for a further three years, the MoU is part of a broader defensive strategy pursued by European governments, based on a security approach against migrants; rather than giving migrants protection, it seeks to keep them out.   

Under this agreement, Italy and the EU have been helping the Libyan Coast Guard to enhance their maritime surveillance capacity, providing them with financial support and technical assets. Since 2017, Italy has set aside €32.6 million for international missions to support the Libyan Coast Guard, with €10.5 million allocated in 2021. 

Although Italy had negotiated with former Libyan leader Gaddafi to curb migration and crack down on smuggling operations throughout the 2000s, this was the first externalisation agreement the two countries signed since the outbreak of the Libyan civil war. 

Criminalisation and obstruction of NGOs (2017 – to date) 

After the expansion of Frontex’s powers, EU member states affected by irregular sea arrivals, among them Italy, began actively prosecuting NGOs involved in rescue activities, seizing and impounding their vessels, and charging crewmembers with facilitating illegal immigration. Data collected by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) shows that 34 NGO ships were involved in legal proceedings between 2017 and June 2020

In additional to penal proceeding, search and rescue NGOs have been also victims of administrative obstacles. The latest example of the Italian government using its administrative powers to punish organisations involved in search and rescue activities and to obstruct civilian efforts to rescue people in distress at sea occurred in February 2023. The Ancona Coast Guard notified MSF and Geo Barents of the 20-day detention and a fine of up to €10,000 for failing to provide the voyage data recorder to authorities on arrival at Ancona, a port city on Italy’s Adriatic coast, on 17 February when Geo Barents disembarked 48 people rescued at sea. Justice should determine the lawfulness of the detention and fine.

The code of conduct 

In July 2017, as result of intense political pressure, NGOs operating in the Mediterranean had to sign a code of conduct, drafted by Italy in consultation with the European Commission, which prohibited search and rescue activities in Libyan territorial waters and enacted other restrictions. Because of the MoU with Libya, the new code of conduct effectively limited the NGO ships’ ability to rescue people unless they were in European territorial and international waters. Back then, MSF took the decision not to sign the Code of Conduct because it included specific commitment which are red lines for MSF. Some elements of the Code of Conduct were unhelpful for rescue activities, could result in reduced rescue capacity, and consequently result in further drownings.

Italy and Malta have placed obstacles against civil society search-and-rescue vessels from disembarking at their ports since 2018. The following year, with the backing of the far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Parliament adopted a law imposing fines of up to 1 million euros and automatically impounding private vessels found to be conducting rescue activities.  

Decree-Law no. 1/2023 converted into Law 15/2023

In January 2023, a new Decree-Law came into force in Italy. Among other rules, the Italian government requests civilian rescue ships to immediately head to port after each rescue, implying to ignore other distress calls at sea. This contradicts the captain’s obligation to render immediate assistance to people in distress. This part of the decree is the de-facto praxis of allocating "distant ports" far north of the closest safe port that require several additional days of navigation. The intention is clear: to keep rescue vessels out of the area where most distress cases occur for prolonged periods, reducing their ability to assist at sea.

This decree targets search and rescue NGOs, but it is the people fleeing across the Central Mediterranean who will pay the real price. In a joint statement, 20 civil society organisations called on the Italian government to immediately withdraw its newly issued law decree and members of the Italian Parliament to oppose the decree, thereby preventing it from being converted into law.  

On 3 March 2023, the Decree-Law was converted into Law 15/2023.

Vessels at sea

Geo Barents – used by MSF from 2021 - present

The M/V Geo Barents is sailing under the Norwegian flag. The ship’s overall length is 76.95 metres long. It has two decks for survivors; one for men and one for women and children. There is a clinic, a midwifery room and an observation room for all the medical activities. The ship has two fast rescue boats to launch during rescue activities.

Sea Watch 4 (with Sea Watch) – used by MSF in 2020

The Sea-Watch 4 is a German-flagged ship that used to be an oceanographic research vessel called Poseidon, which was purchased by Sea-Watch and the United4Rescue coalition at the end of January 2020. It has since been refitted for search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea. MSF had a medical crew on board the vessel in 2020. It is 60.8 meters long and was originally built in 1976.

Ocean Viking (with SOS Méditerranée) – used by MSF in 2019

Ocean Viking operates under the flag of Norway. It is 69 metres long and is fully equipped to perform search and rescue with four high speed rescue boats, as well as a medical clinic with consultation, triage and recovery rooms. MSF had a medical crew on board the vessel in 2019. 

Aquarius (with SOS Méditerranée) – used by MSF from 2016 - 2018

The Aquarius operated under the flag of Gibraltar. On board there were three different crews: the nautical and technical crew, the rescue crew from SOS Méditerranée and the medical crew from MSF. It had the capacity to take on board up to 500 rescued people. 

Prudence – used by MSF in 2017

The Vos Prudence, sailing under the flag of Italy, was operationally active from March to October 2017 and run solely by MSF. The vessel had the capacity to take up to 750 people on board with contingency for another 400. It had 13 MSF staff members on board in charge of medical activities and rescues, and 17 non-MSF nautical and technical crew tasked primarily with the navigation and maintenance of the ship.

Bourbon Argos – used by MSF from 2015 - 2016

The ship provided search and rescue support from May 2015 to November 2016 under the flag of Luxembourg. The vessel had the capacity to carry 300 – 350 rescued people. The MSF crew on board was in charge of medical activities and rescue.

Dignity I – used by MSF from 2015 - 2016

The MSF ship Dignity I ran search and rescue operations from 2015 to 2016. All the crew on board was MSF. The vessel had the capacity to carry 300 rescued people and was sailing under the flag of Panama.

Phoenix (with MOAS) - 2015

From May to October 2015, the Phoenix, run by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), had an MSF medical team of two doctors and a nurse on board to provide humanitarian medical aid. The ship sailed under the flag of Norway.