Could you introduce the Nadir (RESQSHIP’s ship), as the concept and the challenges behind it? How do you support boats in distress?

The Nadir is a sailboat run by the German organisation RESQSHIP. When we started in 2017, we were the smallest NGO in the Mediterranean. Based on our experiences working with larger organisations, we opted to use a smaller sailboat. On a smaller ship, we have more flexibility during operations, lower cost of maintenance and of operations in general, as well as the freedom to sail the ship safely with people with a variety of skills and background on board. I think this concept has been quite successful and we have been able to support many people. 

RESQSHIP tries to be more of a presence in the central Mediterranean with the aim of observing the routes and supporting people on the move. Of course, we will be fully equipped, and we can assure safety in a distress situation, but rescue is not the first goal. If it is an emergency case, our first action is to inform and pressure competent authorities to do their actual job; but when possible, we just help people by providing first aid, accompanying their boats, or giving them water – always informing authorities at the same time.

We consider ourselves as part of the civil fleet and I think that the more people are down there, the higher the chance to find and support people in distress. We are essentially looking for a needle in the haystack! I think the Nadir is special because we have equipment for first aid, but also a very good reason to ask authorities to intervene as soon as possible. Although, in emergency situations, we can take people on board, we don’t have the resources to support people for days at a time like the other larger ships can

Of course, every situation is different, and it is necessary to always be open-minded to find new solutions to new scenarios with the different actors you have around you.

Why is monitoring the Tunisian route important?

First, looking at recent developments in the Central Mediterranean, I don’t know if it makes sense to distinguish between the Libyan route and the Tunisian route. This past summer, we encountered boats that departed from Libya but navigated right next to the border of Tunisian territorial waters – most likely to avoid being intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. Other people we met this autumn said they travelled in two legs: by boat or on land from Libya to Tunisia and then by boat from Tunisia towards Italy.

In any case, considering the “areas” more than the routes, I think that in our community, there is the misconception that the Tunisian corridor is shorter, safer, covered by the Italian Coast Guard, and crossed with high quality boats. Even if this was partially true at some point, the situation has changed drastically over the past 2 years or so.

Then, if we are to consider that the route is actually shorter from Tunisia to Lampedusa, we must acknowledge that the majority of boats used are very low quality, so often it is essentially a race against time. For example, the metal boats are not very likely to make it to Lampedusa autonomously. In the past, we have found boats that had been at sea for four days, because they got lost or due to an engine problem!

And yes, the Italian Coast Guard performs rescues. We have also seen the Italian Coast Guard rescuing outside Italian SRR numerous times, but usually not too far away, which leaves a vast area of the Tunisian route uncovered. At times, the number of boats crossing was very high as well.

So, I do not think that the Tunisian route is safer, less violent, or less deadly than other routes. It should therefore be monitored more closely by the SAR community, considering Tunisia as a key country in the central Mediterranean routes.

So, you have encountered the metal boats recently present in the central Mediterranean…can you describe them?

Yes, indeed. They are an absolute nightmare! They are super unstable, the most dangerous boats I have ever seen! I call them “bathtubs of death”.

Example of a metal boat that arrived in Lampedusa, with very dangerous handles that are not visible because they are submerged when the boat is crowded.Picture Jasmine Iozzelli.

The first time we encountered such a boat was during the September rotation. We were able to support 3 cases even though all of them were metal boats. In the next rotation, 3 out of 11 boats assisted were metal. Lastly, in November, over eight days, we directly supported 11 boats, 9 of which were the metal. From what we know all had departed from Tunisia.

They are makeshift and low quality, very dangerous to those in and around them. Due to the sharp edges, we have found people with open cuts on the hands and arms. The edges present a danger to the RHIB’s and sponsons when approaching them as well as to the Italian Coast Guard assets.

Boat shipwrecked. Picture RESQSHIP.

The boats are constructed with poorly-welded plates and a waterproofing paste that doesn’t always work successfully. There are usually 30-40 people on board which causes the freeboard to be very low. Considering that there is no proper deck, people in the middle are mostly immersed in the water, with the toxic mix of seawater, fuel, and human waste. Because of this, people try to stand, which makes the vessel even more unstable. You can see a boat suddenly plunge when water fills the boat due to sudden movements or waves. This was observed during an approach carried out by the Italian Coast Guard: once alongside the boat, a couple of sudden movements were enough for the boat to fill up with water and disappear within seconds.

In my opinion, the reason for the switch to metal boats seems to be that the system that brought containers of rubber boats from China doesn’t exist anymore. Once the supply of finished vessels was interrupted, people switched to using metal boats even though they are not considered seaworthy. The dangerous nature of these boats gives us further reason to remain in this area to provide assistance!

Which kind of interaction have you had with Italian, Tunisian and Libyan authorities?

The relationship with the Italian Coast Guard has been good so far: when we encounter a boat and call them, they tend to respond within a reasonable amount of time and have helped rescue a lot of people in areas and in kind of operations in which the contact with them is a given. Furthermore, we are a sailing boat, not really a big player which might make a difference. The communication with them is usually working well and we are very thankful for their job. Nevertheless, it’s worth saying that we are also a bit frustrated at the military style commands they use, such as yelling in Italian. This puts unnecessary pressure on the people who cannot understand them (including us!) for no reason. I can understand that they are afraid of losing control and they just want to have everyone safe on board. At the end of the day, we are there to do the same job, but the procedures are sometimes very rushed.

The Libyan Coast Guard is a totally different scenario! Although other SAR assets have had negative experiences and we have heard of horrific things they have done to them, such as shooting, intimidation, and exposure to dangerous manoeuvres, so far, they have mostly left us alone. As a small sailing vessel, we do not have much leverage against them when it comes to size or weight, but it seems they do not perceive us as a threat or worthy of too much trouble.

With the Tunisian Coast Guard, the story is different. You never know what you will face. We have a lot of testimonies of dangerous manoeuvres, violent behaviours, and concrete pullbacks. We once had a very tricky rescue with a big wooden boat with more than 100 people on board. Another NGO asset was on scene and at one point the overcrowded wooden boat capsized in high waves. 110 people in the water. We deployed the life rafts. European MRCC’s denied responsibility and after many many hours, a Tunisian Navy vessel arrived. But the military commander promised us that we would be able to disembark in Italy, in Lampedusa. Sometimes the craziest things happen!

Tunisian coast guards. Picture Friedhold Ulonska (RESQSHIP)

On other occasions, we saw them playing cat and mouse, harassing and exercising violence against people. Once, when we were in international waters, in Maltese SAR, there was a rubber boat collapsing and a fisherman was helping them by taking some of the people on board. We were there, assisting with our tender and at the same time, calling Italian authorities because Lampedusa, Italy, was the nearest place of safety. Suddenly, a “Douane Tunisienne” asset arrived and started to do a very dangerous manoeuvre by orbiting around the fishing vessel and making it sway a lot.

Our RHIB team was forced to leave the scene, otherwise they were risking capsizing. We kept communicating with the fisherman. They stayed there orbiting until we told them that the Italian Coast Guard was arriving. Once the Italian Coast Guard was there, they just disappeared!

Could you tell us more about the relationship you have with fishermen?

Fishing vessels have an important and life-saving role in the area. People leaving from Tunisia usually don’t have satellite phones and are, therefore, not able to call the Coast Guard or Alarm Phone. We do get information about distress cases from civil aircraft, but they are not always around or flying in this zone. It is exactly in this scenario that channel 16 on VHF radio becomes crucial: fishing vessels are continuously informing Lampedusa of distress cases with coordinates. We can acknowledge and are grateful for the invisible fleet that is not only notifying authorities and putting pressure on them, but also staying out for hours and hours, just to be sure the people are ok, telling them to stay calm, sit down, giving water and food – sometimes even fresh baguettes! I mean, sometimes, they can be quite annoyed when Radio Lampedusa orders them to stay with a boat and to render assistance if needed, when they really want to continue working. 

But nonetheless, I have to say that on the Tunisian corridor, fishing vessels are quite essential and there would be many more deaths if it wasn’t for them.

It is the code of the sea to help people in distress. Living at sea you always know that the next one could be you.

Of course, some of them are also just avoiding that zone to not lose time for fishing, and again, I can understand. But really, most of the ones we encountered were really concerned about the situation. Sometimes, they also build up a very efficient “relay system”: if a case is too far from Lampedusa, the VHF radios are often exceeding their range, and it is possible that Lampedusa cannot receive the message.

So other fishing vessels along the route relay and if needed even translate the message of other fishing vessels until Lampedusa can hear them. Once, in four hours between an open case and another one, we overheard 7 alarm cases on channel 16! I would say that it is a very wide network of relay and solidarity!

Thank you, Marie, Linda, Ingo, and Monica, for this interview!

Nadir preventing a pushback by the Libyan Coast Guard. Picture Leon Salner.