The Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (CMRCC) is a coordination and documentation platform for people in distress in the Central Mediterranean Sea.
European Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) are failing to live up to their duties to promptly assist people at sea. They have instead adopted a practice of systematic omissions, delayed intervention and facilitation of forcible returns, in violation of the laws of the sea and international human rights conventions.
In this context and in light of the necessity to fill the guilty void left by authorities in international waters between Libya and Europe, the CMRCC endeavours to hold coastal states accountable for their duty to coordinate search and rescue activities and support shipmasters engaged in sea rescue operations and to facilitate and improve effective cooperation and communication between the different non-state actors engaged in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations at sea and to call for the intervention of State actors in fulfilment of their duty to rescue in compliance with human rights principles. Besides improving SAR coordination, the CMRCC intends to gather data and information on cases of distress in the Central Mediterranean area, to raise public awareness and support advocacy efforts and research.
Why a CMRCC
EU maritime authorities and coastguards, including RCC Malta and MRCC Italy, have become increasingly dysfunctional since 2017. Since then, European authorities took a step back from the Central Mediterranean area, with particular regards to Italy, which voluntarily guaranteed rescue capacity in the area and EU military missions.
The whole responsibility for rescuing people has been delegated to Libya, which is clearly not able to cover such a vast SAR area, extending up to 100 nautical miles from the coast, and cannot offer a safe place for disembarkation, as required by law. The European institutional presence is mostly limited to aerial surveillance, which, as documented by civil society actors, in many cases leads to complicity in forcible returns to Libya.
Instead of ensuring cooperation, as provided by the SAR Convention, Maltese and Italian authorities delegate the responsibility to coordinate rescues to Libya. European authorities, including the EU border control agency Frontex, EUNAVFORMED, Italian and Maltese authorities, are conducting aerial monitoring operations which often result in facilitating the illegal push/pull-back, operated by the so-called Libyan Coastguard, of tens of thousands of people seeking protection. This practice implements the EU externalisation policy designed to prevent migrant people from reaching Europe, without providing for any safe and legal alternative and rather fuelling the activity of criminal networks exploiting people on the move, due to their contiguity with the so-called Libyan Coastguard. Push/pull-backs also constitute a direct violation of human rights, as people intercepted by Libyan authorities are subjected to inhuman and degrading treatments which were well-documented by UN agencies and denounced by the Council of Europe.
Even when Libyans authorities do not intervene, their European counterparts do not launch SAR missions and are not responsive to the requests of coordination by civil actors relaying distress cases. The failure to coordinate distress cases has been documented in several cases even within the Maltese and Italian SAR zones. Both MRCCs refuse to cooperate with or provide information to civil actors, which has repeatedly hampered their ability to provide assistance to people in distress. Moreover, RCC Malta has repeatedly organised illegal push-backs “by proxy” operations from their own SAR zone to Libya.
These developments and the framing of the discourse around rescue at sea by institutions show the close relation between SAR approaches and the implementation of the EU border management policy of externalization. The CMRCC was founded to ensure the rescue of people in distress at sea and their disembarkation in a Place of Safety, in full compliance with the rules of international law.
The CMRCC includes the fleet of NGOs that have assisted and brought to safety tens of thousands of lives since 2015. This was done through maritime rescues carried out by NGO ships and aerial monitoring flights by their planes, as well as through the Alarmphone platform, which supported over 3,500 boats in danger since 2014. The CMRCC umbrella aims at including potentially all civil society actors that contribute to create a solidarity network in support of people on the move and committing to ensure assistance at sea while protecting international law.
The CMRCC does not relieve European MRCCs from their duty to rescue and to coordinate SAR cases in a timely and effective manner and, therefore, does not intend in any way to replace them. Instead, the CMRCC aims to hold coastal states accountable for their duty to coordinate search and rescue activities and fill that void resulting from the systematic non-assistance and the unjustified delays of European Member States. The practices of European and Libyan actors have turned the Central Mediterranean Sea into a deserted space of violence, irresponsibility and impunity. In this space, fundamental human rights, including the freedom of movement, are systematically violated, and there with the right to escape and migrate and to seek protection.
The presence of civil society at sea is necessary to monitor and document human rights violations and to avoid the continuous loss of life which is the result of restrictive European migration policies and the failure to uphold SAR principles. The CMRCC provides the necessary infrastructure empowering civil actors to deliver assistance at sea, upholding the rule of law against irresponsible and cynical State practices.
Who is the CMRCC?
The Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre is a network of different non-governmental actors and individuals with SAR experience in the Mediterranean. The CMRCC therefore is not an actor itself, but a fluid, constantly growing network of solidarity. The project is self-organized and the infrastructure is provided by all actors involved. Civilfleet-Support e.V., the development of the software of the CMRCC, was funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research, staff is funded by donations.
How does the CMRCC work?
As a network of different civil society actors, the core work of the civil MRCC is cooperation and coordination of Search and Rescue events.
The work is supported by the development of a geo-information live-system, that provides situation data from various sources in real-time on a situation-map, as well as a historical database on SAR events. This enables good analyses and assessments of the ongoing developments. The geoinformation system does not only plot public data such as the position of ships or aircraft position data, transmitted by their transponders, but also the data collected by civil society actors involved in SAR.
This coordination of SAR events contains four different overlapping phases.
Receiving a potential distress case
The information on a potential case of distress comes in either through a ship having a visual spotting or a target on the radar, through air surveillance by an aircraft or through a distress call to the emergency hotline.
Reporting a distress case
After being informed of a possible distress case, the CMRCC alerts relevant SAR authorities – both by phone and by email, by putting in cc all the SAR actors in the area and other bodies who have the protection of people in distress, migrants, refugees, under their mandate – namely the EU states coastguards (IMRCC and RCC Malta), NGO assets, UNHCR.
This is done in accordance with the civil society/individual duty to report about a possible emergency and the institutional duty to carry out further investigation on the case.
Even if in several cases it is not possible to collect comprehensive information on the case, as a general rule we try to report:
- The reported satellite phone number of the boat, if any, or individual phone numbers of people on board.
- The reported position of the boat
- The general situation onboard (i.e. if water is getting onboard)
- The possible reported presence of people with specific needs (women, minors, people with health issues)
Even in those cases in which, according to the received information, the boat in distress appears to be in the Libyan SAR zone, reporting activities will be addressed to the Maritime Authorities of European coastal states, since – as outlined by UN bodies, UNHCR in particular, Libya does not meet criteria to be considered neither a safe country of origin, a third safe country or a Place of Safety. A return to Libya would violate the international legal framework on asylum (Geneva Convention, art.33 on prohibition of refoulement), human rights (ECHR, art. 3 prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatments, art. 4,4 prohibition of collective expulsions, right to leave), as well as the international maritime law, according to which a SAR operation can be considered as concluded only after disembarkation to a Place of Safety.
Over the past years, the Maritime Authorities of EU coastal States have often indicated the so-called Libyan Coastguard as the relevant authority to intervene and suggested to reach out to them. We believe this approach is not consistent with the international legal framework. It is also highly dysfunctional, as the so-called Libyan Coastguard is often not reachable, as we could directly observe.
With the aim of ensuring a prompt rescue of the people in distress, the phase of reporting to EU relevant authorities goes in parallel with social media work and public political pressure.
Furthermore, when possible, we continue to stay in touch with the boat and to update authorities accordingly.
Coordination during SAR events
In case of assessed lack of intervention by relevant authorities, the CMRCC will act in order to prevent possible loss of lives at sea and in accordance with the existing legal framework of maritime law, human rights law, asylum law.
This assessment can be based on a number of circumstances, such as:
- EU coastguards are not responsive to attempts to reach out via email or phone.
- EU coastguards answer the phone and say they are not responsible for the case, and delegate responsibility to another EU coastguard (unreachable and unwilling to assume the coordination) or to the so-called Libyan Coastguard.
The CMRCC commits to collect all available information about a distress case and involves all actors potentially able to assist. Besides the civil fleet, the civil aircrafts and the emergency hotlines, this also involves the contact to merchant vessels which may be close by or on scene.
The process of including merchant vessels in the coordination of SAR events always aims to prevent their involvement in illegal pull/push backs to Libya and successfully ends with completing the rescue operation with a disembarkation to a place of safety, that qualifies as such according to the applicable legal framework. Accordingly, in the Central Mediterranean area a Place of Safety is to be found in a European port and cannot be Libya or Tunisia.
Documentation, research and information sharing
After the completion of a SAR event the CMRCC engages in further follow-up work, especially when people went missing. As competent authorities don’t release any information on ongoing or completed SAR events, the CMRCC documents all SAR events through a dedicated software. The documentation is also needed to support SAR operations and gather evidence to hold the responsible actors accountable. Furthermore, information can be provided for requests from third parties, such as journalists and researchers. Finally, collecting documentation contributes to gathering evidence for potential strategic litigation initiatives to expose violations and omissions by relevant authorities, through the direct involvement of the victims, their relatives and communities.
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