For its life-saving humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea.
SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European maritime-humanitarian organisation saving people’s lives in the Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest migration route. Carrying out search and rescue operations, the organisation has brought more than 38,500 people to safety since operations began in 2016. SOS MEDITERRANEE follows a strict legal framework based on maritime law, setting high standards for search and rescue operations, and showing that assisting people in distress at sea is a legal obligation.
The organisation, which is an association of four offices located in France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, was founded by civilians in May 2015, in response to the tragic loss of lives in the Mediterranean and the European Union’s inability to effectively address this issue. Pooling resources, the association finances and operates the Ocean Viking rescue ship with a professional crew. Once brought aboard, survivors are provided with medical and psycho-social care. SOS MEDITERRANEE also aims to amplify the voices of survivors by sharing their stories.
The organisation’s unwavering commitment to humanity has not only saved lives but kept the public, European institutions and national governments acutely aware of the realities of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.
SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European maritime-humanitarian organisation saving people’s lives in the Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest migration route. The humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea has reached alarming heights in recent years. In this dramatic context, the organisation fills a pressing need for proactive maritime rescue effort. Since its operations began in 2016, SOS MEDITERRANEE’s professional rescuers have brought tens of thousands of people to safety.
The escalating humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean
Fleeing war, persecution and economic difficulties, refugees and migrants have long crossed the Mediterranean Sea seeking safety in Europe. However, the war in Syria and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan set off a large-scale movement of people, leading to a record number of more than 1 million migrants arriving to Europe through the Mediterranean in 2015. This figure was more than three times the number of people arriving by sea in 2014, marking a significant shift. Along with the increased sea crossings, the number of people who perished during the journey also grew dramatically in 2015.
In recent years, the situation has worsened, marked by a rising death toll, increased violent incidents and a stark uptick in forced returns to Libya. In 2020, 1,449 deaths were registered, and by 2022, the figure had risen to 2,406. In just the first eight months of 2023, 2,325 lives have been lost.
Adding to the tragedy, there have been reports of the Libyan coast guard using firearms against non-governmental organisations engaged in life-saving operations. This dangerous behaviour highlights the growing lawlessness in what should be a universally respected area governed by international maritime law. Forced returns to Libya remain a critical concern, with 32,425 reported cases in 2021 and over 10,600 in the first half of 2023. These figures paint a grim reality: the Mediterranean Sea, historically a meeting point of cultures, has now become a deadly barrier for those seeking safety.
Citizens mobilise to save lives
Since the beginning of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, there has been a lack of cohesive efforts within the EU to coordinate an effective search and rescue operation. This appalling lack of solidarity and humanity prompted European citizens to set up the SOS MEDITERRANEE network in 2015 to respond to the dire need.
Pooling funding from offices in Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland, the association’s first rescue ship, the Aquarius, carried out operations between February 2016 and December 2018. In August 2019, a faster ship, the Ocean Viking, was chartered to take over the mission. The almost 70-metre-long vessel is designed to rescue and carry large numbers of people. Its operating costs amount to 24,000 EUR per day, financed mainly through private donations.
Humanitarian and maritime
SOS MEDITERRANEE serves a dual role as both a humanitarian and a maritime organisation. As a humanitarian actor, the organisation’s main aims are to save lives, provide people with medical and psychological help and bring them to safety. As a maritime organisation, SOS MEDITERRANEE operates in strict observance of maritime laws, using nautical science and crisis management practices to provide an effective model for humanitarian action at sea. The organisation maintains constant contact with relevant maritime authorities and bases its actions on dialogue with coastal states to avoid any kind of confrontation. Using this approach, SOS MEDITERRANEE has unequivocally shown that assisting people in distress at sea is a legal obligation.
In the event of an emergency, SOS MEDITERRANEE’s professional crew follows a set of standard operating procedures based on maritime and humanitarian law, allowing it to act in a swift and effective manner. Once on board, survivors are given food, clothing, and medical and psychological attention. The crew also collects survivors’ testimonies to help identify vulnerable individuals such as unaccompanied minors and victims of torture. This information is later transmitted to medical authorities at ports.
Despite considerable obstacles, such as politically motivated port closures and legal threats, the organisation adapts and persists in its life-saving mission. SOS MEDITERRANEE maintains that rescuing people at sea is a legal obligation and that no one should perish at sea.
Besides its search and rescue operations, SOS MEDITERRANEE also focuses on lifting the voices of migrants and refugees rescued at sea. By bearing witness to the suffering in the Mediterranean, SOS MEDITERRANEE ensures the issue remains on the European agenda. Survivors tell their stories and give faces to those fleeing war, exploitation and threats to their very existence in hopes of finding safety on Europe’s shores. Journalists and film crews also often accompany the rescue operations to raise attention to the crisis.
The organisation also aims to keep the memory of those who don’t survive the perilous journey. This approach holds fast to the value that every person and life matters, which is often disregarded in the European debate around refugees and immigrants. Through its human-centred and law-based approach, SOS MEDITERRANEE works towards a world where no person has to risk their life or die in the pursuit of safety and ensuring a livelihood.