Festsetzung Free the Fleet

Joint press release by United4Rescue, Sea-Watch, SOS Humanity and Sea-Eye

Within the last week, the Italian government has detained three NGO rescue ships flying the German flag. The Humanity 1, the Sea-Watch 5 and the Sea-Eye 4 are being prevented from carrying out their life-saving work on the basis of false accusations. For the first time, the Italian government has blocked one of the ships, the Sea-Eye 4, for 60 days, marking an escalation of its actions against the civil fleet.

In a new wave of detentions, the Italian government has blocked the rescue ships Humanity 1, Sea-Watch 5 and Sea-Eye 4 – after rescuing over 390 people in total. All three ships are part of the United4Rescue alliance supported by the German Protestant Church and over 900 partners. The 60-day detention of the Sea-Eye 4 represents an escalation of the obstruction of the civil fleet. Together with the 20-day detentions of the Sea-Watch 5 and the Humanity 1, the rescue ships are being actively kept out of the Mediterranean for a total of 100 days. Since January 2023, nine ships of the civil fleet have been detained a total of 19 times by the Italian authorities.

Each of the three current detentions is based on false accusations and unlawful demands. The Italian authorities falsely refer to uncooperative behavior by the ships’ crews towards the so-called Libyan coast guard. Yet all detentions were preceded by attempts by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to force people in distress at sea back to Libya in violation of international law. In two cases – Humanity 1 and Sea-Eye 4 – the crews were threatened with weapons. A 17-year-old boy died on board the Sea-Watch 5 after all coastal states refused a medical evacuation.

Italy is trying by all means to stop the humanitarian operations of sea rescue organizations. The detentions are an act of political violence against tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean to seek protection in Europe. We are fighting this with all legal means at our disposal, because in addition to the detentions, our rescue ship is even threatened with permanent confiscation,” says Gorden Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye e.V.

“This escalation represents a new level of criminalisation of civil sea rescue by Italy! The aim is to impede the work of the rescue organisations by any means possible. Yet every day of the detention costs human lives. We are deeply concerned about this development and as United4Rescue we stand behind every single ship with our alliance of over 900 organisations. Together we demand the immediate release of the ships!”, says Sandra Bils, board member of United4Rescue.

Co-operation with the so-called Libyan coast guard in illegal ‘pullbacks’ to Libya violates international maritime and human rights law. Libya is not a safe place for people rescued from distress at sea, as was recently confirmed once again by Italy’s highest court. At the same time, by supporting the so-called Libyan coast guard, the European Union and its member states are complicit in the most serious human rights violations at sea and in Libyan detention centers.

SOS Humanity, Sea-Watch and Sea-Eye are taking legal action against the unlawful detention of their rescue ships. The so-called Piantedosi Law, on the basis of which the ships are detained, even provides for the seizure of civil rescue ships in the event of repeated detentions.


60 days detention for preventing an illegal pushback

After rescuing a total of 145 people from distress at sea during two operations on 7 and 8 March, Italian authorities detained the ship SEA-EYE 4 for 60 days on 11 March and fined it 3,333 euros. The reasoning behind this is not tenable, as the SEA-EYE 4 is not permitted under international law to take part in a pushback to the civil war country of Libya. This would have been the case if it had interrupted its advanced rescue operation and handed over the 84 people seeking protection to the so-called Libyan coastguard, which had approached with weapons at the ready. Italy is once again de facto penalising rescue ships for complying with international law. Sea-Eye will once again take legal action against the blockade, as it has done in previous cases.

Italy’s top appeals court only confirmed in February this year that pushbacks to Libya are illegal under international law, thereby confirming the criminal conviction of a captain who brought refugees back to Libya in 2018. People seeking protection must not be returned to a years-long, cruel civil war from which they fled. The list of serious human rights violations (e.g. torture, slavery, rape, arbitrary executions) to which refugees are subjected there is long.

Italy is now penalising the SEA-EYE 4 and two other German sea rescue vessels that have already been detained for not following the instructions of the so-called Libyan coastguard. However, these instructions would have led to participation in pushbacks, as the so-called Libyan coastguard is taking the fleeing people back to the civil war. The illegality of this action is particularly evident in reports of human rights violations suffered by people after a pushback in Libya.

Although it is illegal and deeply inhumane to return people to a bloody conflict from which they have fled, Italy is demanding that German sea rescue organisations take part in precisely such operations. Our refusal to take part in these horrific abductions is penalised with ship blockades and fines. Yet only Germany, as the flag state, is authorised to sanction our ship for misconduct in international waters. Now that three German sea rescue ships have been detained in Italy, it is up to the German government to finally intervene and take political responsibility for the humanitarian missions of German rescue ships,” says Gorden Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye e.V.

On 7 March, the SEA-EYE 4 was the first to find the distress case which led to the arrest and was unable to make contact with the so-called Libyan coastguard during the search. When the rescue was already at an advanced stage and people had been evacuated from the unseaworthy rubber boat, two coastguard vessels appeared at the scene and demanded that the operation be cancelled. The so-called Libyan coastguard aimed weapons at the crew of the rescue boat. The crew of the SEA-EYE 4 de-escalated the situation and brought all the people on their rescue ship to safety. On 10 March, all the people who had fled were able to go ashore in Reggio Calabria, where the SEA-EYE 4 is now detained. This is the longest administrative detention of a sea rescue ship under the Piantedosi Decree to date.

144 people urgently need a safe harbour

After a previous rescue of 84 people on Thursday morning (7 March 2024), the rescue ship SEA-EYE 4 was on its way to Ancona. Since then, two distress calls have interrupted the route to the assigned harbour: While the Italian Coast Guard was able to take over the rescue in the first case, the SEA-EYE 4 rescued 61 people under the most difficult conditions on Friday night. The emergency evacuation of a patient with fuel poisoning took place in the morning hours after a failed attempt at night. The situation on board remains critical, especially for two babies in a fragile condition. In light of these developments, the allocation of a closer safe harbour for the disembarkation of the now total of 144 survivors on board remains urgent.


The SEA-EYE 4 rescued 84 lives on Thursday morning and was on its way to Ancona. The Italian port city, four days away, had previously been assigned to the ship by the Italian authorities as a port for disembarking the 84 rescued people.

On Friday night (8 March 2024), the SEA-EYE 4 received another distress call via Alarmphone, which informed the authorities and the Sea-Eye rescue vessel of a call for help in the Maltese search and rescue zone. Head of Mission Julie Schweickert offered assistance to the Maltese authorities, but received no response. The Italian authorities authorised the SEA-EYE 4 to interrupt its route to Ancona in order to search for the boat in distress. Around midday on Friday (8 March 2024), the SEA-EYE 4 crew managed to find the boat with around 50 people on board. The Italian coastguard arrived at almost the same time, rescued the people and brought them to Lampedusa. The SEA-EYE 4 set course for the harbour of Ancona again. 

A few hours later, the SEA-EYE 4 received another distress call via Alarmphone. It was again a position in the Maltese search and rescue zone. As before, the Maltese rescue coordination centre could not be contacted by the SEA-EYE head of mission Julie Schweickert. With the Italian rescue coordination centre coordinating again and with permission to interrupt the approach to Ancona once more, the SEA-EYE 4 changed course in the opposite direction and the crew began the search. After around 5 hours, the boat was found in difficult conditions.

“There were 61 people in an unseaworthy wooden boat, which was taking on a lot of water due to the waves crashing over it and was in danger of capsizing. The swell made the entire rescue a huge challenge. But our lifeboat team was able to rescue everyone safely,” says Julie Schweickert, Head of Mission on board the SEA-EYE 4.

Following the rescue of 61 people, there are now 144 survivors from two maritime emergencies on board and the safe harbour of Ancona is still 4 days away. The hospital team from German Doctors e.V. and Sea-Eye e.V. is working constantly.

“We had a patient who was in very poor health. He had to be supplied with oxygen and had a body temperature of just 32 degrees. The patient was suffering from fuel poisoning because he must have inhaled too much petrol fumes. During the night, Malta sent a helicopter to evacuate the patient to Malta. However, the evacuation, which took place in difficult weather conditions, was cancelled by the pilot. It was only on Saturday morning that the crew of an Italian helicopter managed to fly the patient out to Italy,” says Dr Gerd Klausen, on-board doctor for German Doctors on board the SEA-EYE 4, adding: “We are very worried about two babies who are still not drinking well. Both are very weak. They are six and twelve months old. One baby has a fever.”

The SEA-EYE 4 resumed its course and its journey to the port of Ancona on Saturday morning (09.03.2024). However, due to several maritime emergencies since Thursday, the ship has not yet come much closer to the port of Ancona.

“84 rescued people, including families with children and babies, have already spent two nights on board. Now 61 more people have joined them. One person has been evacuated. We are now urging Italy to assign us a closer harbour. The weather will change in the next 48 hours. A rescue ship is not the right place to accommodate so many vulnerable people for up to 6 days and nights. We really urgently need the nearest safe harbour to disembark all the survivors,” says Jan Ribbeck, Director of Mission, of the ongoing operation for Sea-Eye e.V.


Sea-Eye crew threatened with Libyan weapons during rescue

The crew of the SEA-EYE 4 rescued another 84 people from distress at sea on Thursday morning during the first mission of the current year. The so-called Libyan coast guard, acting aggressively, endangered the rescue operation and aimed weapons at the ship’s rescue boat.

At around 10 a.m., the Sea-Eye rescue vessel received a distress call from Alarmphone, which informed the relevant authorities and the SEA-EYE 4 about the call for help from a rubber boat. The SEA-EYE 4 crew located the people calling for help within an hour. The Head of Mission asked the Italian authorities to coordinate the distress at sea. However, the Italian authorities insisted that Libya was responsible, even though, according to their own statements, no communication with the Libyan authorities was possible at the time. They asked Head of Mission Julie Schweickert to continue trying in Libya herself. However, this was unsuccessful.

In the meantime, the crew members of the MOCHARA rescue boat provided life jackets to the people on the rubber boat. Two people were rescued from the water by the crew of the rescue boat. A total of 84 people were evacuated onto the SEA-EYE 4. During the evacuation, two ships of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard approached at high speed. Head of Mission Julie Schweickert describes “super aggressive” behavior by the Libyans. During the rescue, the weapons of a Libyan ship were aimed at the crew of the rescue boat.

“It is unacceptable that our crew has to look down the barrel of a gun during their humanitarian work. The brutal and ruthless behavior of the so-called Libyan coast guard has nothing to do with sea rescue. Cooperation with these violent and armed militias must be stopped by the EU states before humanitarian aid workers come to harm,” demands Gorden Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye e.V.

The joint medical team from German Doctors e.V. and Sea-Eye e.V. immediately began providing medical treatment and care for the rescued people.

“Among those rescued are numerous women and families with children. Four children are not even 2 years old. We had to provide one baby with oxygen for a short time. We are glad that we were able to stabilize the children quickly and save so many people,” says Dr Gerd Klausen, on-board doctor for German Doctors on the SEA-EYE 4.

Ammna Bhati, paediatric nurse from London (UK), added that “many people are hypothermic and need treatment.” 

In the afternoon, the Italian authorities directed the SEA-EYE 4 to the port of Ancona, some 800 nautical miles away. The ship will need around 4 days to get there and will therefore ask the Italian authorities for a closer port.