A German NGO has launched a twin-engined plane over the Mediterranean to help rescue migrants at sea and monitor human rights violations.
Its owner, Sea Watch International, said the Seabird's crew witnessed two cases of migrants being illegally pushed back by the controversial but EU-funded Libyan coastguard during its flight on Sunday. About 120 people on board a distressed boat were later rescued by a Sea Watch vessel.
Part of the Seabird’s role is to relay distress calls to ships and authorities in the area, who have increasingly ignored their pleas.
Nearly 23,000 people have died or gone missing attempting to reach European shores since 2014. The International Organisation for Migration says there are 1,465 missing migrants recorded in Mediterranean in 2021.
More than 49,000 migrants have reached Italian shores so far this year, according to the Italian interior ministry, roughly double the number who crossed in the same period in 2020.
Sea Watch has relied on millions of dollars worth of donations in recent years and has now acquired two small planes that are able to spot boats in distress much faster. Three to four volunteers man the Seabird, scanning the horizon for potential vessels in need of support.
With the absence of state rescue vessels and NGO ships increasingly being blocked from leaving port, Sea Watch often relies on the good will of merchant boats navigating the area.
But many are reluctant to get involved after several commercial ships found themselves stuck at sea for days as they waited for Italy or Malta to grant permission to allow rescued migrants to disembark.
Others have taken them back to Libya in violation of maritime and refugee conventions. The Seabird, as an NGO plane, can only remind ships below of their obligation rather than ordering them to carry out a rescue.
The Libyan coastguard, empowered by EU money, often takes on the burden of interventions at sea. But those migrants are typically returned to brutal detention centres in Libya, which are accused of carrying out a litany of human abuses.
Only last week, guards shot and killed at least six people at a centre for migrants in Libya
Last week, a court in Naples convicted the captain of an Italian commercial ship for returning 101 migrants to Libya in 2018. Giuseppe Sotgiu was found guilty of violating international laws that forbid the forced return of people to countries where they are at risk.