Ein Schiff der italienischen Küstenwache und Frontex verbrennt ein leeres Schlauchboot. Das Ziel der derzeitigen EU-Mission 'Operation Sophia' ist die Zerstörung von Schlepper-Infrastruktur. Foto: Fabian Melber
Ein Schiff der italienischen Küstenwache und Frontex verbrennt ein leeres Schlauchboot. Das Ziel der derzeitigen EU-Mission 'Operation Sophia' ist die Zerstörung von Schlepper-Infrastruktur. Foto: Fabian Melber

How the EU Abolished Sea Rescue

Secret surveillance and dubious orders - with a campaign lasting several months, the European Union removed civilian rescuers from the Mediterranean Sea. Documents published for the first time now show how Italian authorities proceeded against German NGO "Jugend Rettet".

Even if German media hardly ever report on it: Refugees continue to die in the Mediterranean. In January 2018 alone, almost 200 people drowned fleeing to Europe. The EU member states are trying to distract attention from their failure instead of saving lives. The humanitarian corridor over the Mediterranean has been systematically hampered by the EU in recent months.

Libyan militias have declared not only their own waters, but also adjacent international waters as a restricted area for civilian sea rescue missions. The reasons for the flight from Libya remain: The conditions in Libyan camps are inhuman.

The EU is not afraid to cooperate with the Libyan dictatorship. In order to block the Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe, EU member states also targeted civil society organisations - documents published for the first time now show how sea rescue was criminalised step by step last year.

Chapter #1 : May 6, 2017 – The Iuventa gets bugged

In the spring of 2017, Europe's attention is on the Mediterranean. At least 1000 people have already drowned in the Mediterranean from January to April. The increasingly nervous EU cannot produce a coherent concept to stop the dying. That is why civil society is taking the initiative: Twelve NGOs, supported by tens of thousands of people from all over Europe, have bought or chartered their own ships for sea rescue. Among them is the German organization "Jugend Rettet", which saves people's lives with the ship "Iuventa" in the central Mediterranean Sea.

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Council (MRCC), which reports to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, is responsible for coordinating rescue services. It provides organisations with the procedures for sea rescue: If the authority receives information from one of its various sources about boats in distress at sea, it orders nearby ships to go there. Rescue operations must be discussed with the MRCC. Until reaching a safe harbor, it is up to the MRCC to decide what to do with refugees on board.

Italiens Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rom; Bild: Rosie
Italiens Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rom; Bild: Rosie Scammell/IRIN

"Jugend Rettet" made the MRCC look bad in April: On Easter weekend, the "Iuventa" was unable to manoeuvre on the high seas for two days in view of numerous sea rescues and had to make an emergency call. The small ship, which offers just enough space below deck for a crew of 16 people, had 400 refugees on board. Hundreds of other people in the area around the "Iuventa" were in distress at sea. The MRCC, however, was unable to send larger ships to the scene for two days. It was strongly criticised in the international press.

On May 6th, the "Iuventa" receives unusual orders from the MRCC from Rome, which make the crew listen up. Instead of handing over rescued refugees to a larger ship, which will take them safely to a port, the small "Iuventa" is said to be able to take 75 refugees to the Italian port of Lampedusa overnight. After tough negotiations, most of the refugees can be transferred to other ships. However, five of them must still be brought to Lampedusa by the "Iuventa" itself. The MRCC rejects the offer of other ships to take in refugees instead of the "Iuventa". The crew must obey. If a ship has rescued refugees on board, the MRCC can determine what happens to them. Although a total of 14 refugee boats are in distress at the same time, the ship has to abort the current mission.

E-mails betweens Iuventa and the MRCC between May 4 and May 6

At the port of Lampedusa, the crew is received by the Italian authorities' emergency services: Members of the Coast Guard, local police and elite anti-terrorist units. Also a German-speaking policeman is among them. The crew will be interrogated, the Iuventa searched. While the ship is in port, 23 more emergency calls arrive at the rescue centre in Rome, for which the "Iuventa" cannot help. At least five boats cannot be supplied by the remaining rescue vessels during the upcoming storm in the Mediterranean. Their fate is still unclear.

As investigation documents from the Italian authorities will show later on, the security forces in the port will place a bug on the bridge of the "Iuventa" on this occasion. In the coming months, you will hear all the conversations in the ship's control room. They also monitor the phones of Italian crew members and supporters. With a large-scale surveillance operation, Italian investigators are now focusing on the people who are saving lives in the Mediterranean.

Chapter #2 : 19 May 2017 – Dodgy orders from Italy

The MRCC's unusual orders will increase in the coming weeks. On 19 May, the "Iuventa" is to leave the area of operation at the will of the MRCC to bring 26 refugees to Lampedusa. Although the refugees could be handed over to a large ship of the Italian coast guard, they are to be handed over by the "Iuventa" directly in Lampedusa. The crew explains to the MRCC that the passage by small boat is unsafe. Even the Italian coastguard cannot understand the MRCC's behaviour. However, the coordinating centre will continue to give instructions without giving any reasons.

Mission Log


  1. 04:11

    POSREP an das MRCC gesendet

  2. 04:20

    Einfahrt in die 24-Seemeilen-Zone

  3. 04:20

    Anruf des MRCC, haben einen Notruf von einem Boot bekommen, unbekannte Position, unbekannte Ablegeort, zwischen 23:00 und 24:00 Uhr am 18.6. abgelegt, vermutlich Schlauchboot

  4. 06:55

    Mögliches TV ist ein Fischer, Kurs auf zwei weitere potentielle TV

  5. 07:40

    SITREP an das MRCC gesendet, nach Updates vom Schlauchboot und der generellen Situation gefragt

  6. 07:56

    Funkkontakt mit Sea Gull, informiert über ein kleines Holzboot mit etwa 20 Personen, teilweise ausgerüstet mit Schwimmwesten auf Position: 33°01,7'N 012°24,0'E

  7. 08:01

    Anruf beim MRCC; informieren über das kleine Holzboot, erhalten Anweisung den Kurs zu halten und die Menschen zu retten

  8. 08:05

    RIB Alarm

  9. 08:10

    Sichtkontakt zum TV

  10. 08:18

    Iuventa Rescue im Wasser

  11. 08:20

    Iuventa Rescue informiert: an Bord sind etwa 25 Menschen, inklusive 2 Frauen und 6 Kindern, Stimmung ist gut, Boot ist stabil aber überfüllt

  12. 08:35

    Info an das MRCC, alle Menschen mit Schwimmwesten ausgestattet, erhalten die Anweisung, sie zu evakuieren

  13. 09:00

    Moonbird informiert uns über 6 Schlauchboote, wir nehmen Kurs in die Richtung auf, Iuventa Rescue, Iuventa und Lilly in Vollgas, Spanischer Helikopter ist über den Schlauchbooten

  14. 09:05

    Anruf beim MRCC um ein Update über die aktuelle Situation zu geben, alle Menschen von dem Holzboot sind sicher evakuiert worden, Information über von Moonbird gefundenen 6 Schlauchboote weitergegeben

  15. 09:23

    Iuventa Rescue und Lilly warten außerhalb der 12-Seemeilen-Zone, zwei bestätigte TV, ein potentielles TV in Sicht

  16. 09:24

    Anruf beim MRCC um über aktuelle Situation zu informieren, sie raten nicht in die 12-Seemeilen-Zone einzufahren, da Operationen innerhalb der 12-Seemeilen-Zone unter Anweisung der libyschen Küstenwache stehen

  17. 09:33

    Moonbird informiert uns über etwa 7 Boote in Seenot

  18. 09:44

    Moonbird informiert uns über insgesamt 9 Boote, neue Positionsdaten im Vergleich zum vorherigen Kontakt

  19. 09:50

    SITREP an das MRCC, Information über die 9 von Moonbird gefundenen Boote (Email um 10:10 Uhr gesendet)

  20. 09:59

    Schwimmwesten an TV2 ausgeteilt (weißes Schlauchboot, stabiler Zustand, etwa 125 Personen, 14 Frauen, 2 davon schwanger, 2 Kinder)

  21. 10:06

    Anruf vom MRCC; wir informieren sie, dass sie eine Email mit allen Informationen bekommen

  22. 10:15

    Anruf vom MRCC, Inhalt der letzte Mail mit dem zuständigen Beamten diskutiert

  23. 10:15

    Schwimmwesten an TV3 ausgeteilt (weißes Schlauchboot, stabiler Zustand, etwa 135 Personen, 6 Frauen, davon 1 Schwanger, 1 Kind)

  24. 10:24

    Schwimmwesten an TV4 ausgeteilt (Holzboot, halbwegs stabiler Zustand, etwa 100 Personen)

  25. 10:29

    MRCC ruft an, Bestätigung welche der gemeldeteten Boote Iuventa in Sicht hat, mündlicher SITREP

  26. 10:54

    MRCC ruft an, Bestätigung welche der gemeldeten Boote Iuventa in Sicht hat

  27. 11:07

    ITCG ruft an, Update über aktuelle Situation, erhaltene ETA in etwa 2 Stunden

  28. 11:20

    Ein medizinischer Notfall vom TV 5 (blaues Schlauchboot, etwa 100 Personen, guter Zustand) an Bord genommen

  29. 11:25

    Update über die Situation von TV6 (weißes Schlauchboot, etwa 120 Personen, halbwegs stabiler Zustand)

  30. 12:30

    Erhalten Informationen von EU Marineschiff F86 Canarias, benannt als OSC, ETA zur Position etwa 1h

  31. 12:50

    1 Leichnam von TV5 geborgen

  32. 13:00

    Tod des geborgenen Körpers durch Arzt bestätigt

  33. 13:30

    F86 und CP 941 auf Position, erhalten Anweisung von F86 die Menschen auf den Booten zu beruhigen

  34. 13:33

    Evakuierung von TV4 auf die Iuventa abgeschlossen

  35. 14:10

    In Absprache mit OSC Schwimmwesten an TV7 ausgeteilt (weißes Schlauchboot, etwa 130 Menschen, 15 Frauen, davon 2-3 schwanger, 2 Kinder)

  36. 14:20

    In Absprache mit OSC Schwimmwesten an TV8 ausgeteilt (Holzboot, etwa 95 Personen, mittelmäßiger Zustand)

  37. 14:42

    In Absprache mit OSC, Beginn TV7 Richtung Iuventa zu ziehen

  38. 15:08

    In Absprache mit OSC, Beginn TV9 (weißes Schlauchboot, etwa 150 Personen, 11 Frauen davon 2 schwanger, 5 Kinder) Richtung CP941 zu ziehen

  39. 15:29

    Schwimmwesten an TV9 ausgeteilt

  40. 15:56

    Übersetzer von CP941/Unicef an Bord

  41. 15:58

    MRCC ruft an, MRCC rät dringend die 26 Personen von TV1 nach Lampedusa zu bringen, ist einverstanden, die Entscheidung dann zu treffen, wenn alle anderen Personen von der Iuventa evakuiert sind

  42. 16:45

    Start der Evakuierung des Leichnams und dem medizinischen Notfall von TV5 auf die CP941

  43. 17:30

    Start der Evakuierung der Personen von TV4 von Iuventa auf F86 von CP941 RIBs; 118 Personen

  44. 18:30

    Langsam Kurs Richtung Norden, Deck wird gereinigt, Schwimmwesten gepackt, Raft wird seitlich gezogen, RIB folgt Iuventa

  45. 18:33

    Email an das MRCC, Besorgnis über die Sicherheit der Menschen an Deck auf dem Weg nach Lampedusa geäußert

  46. 18:35

    Anruf beim MRCC, diskutieren Sicherheitsbedenken in o.g. Email

  47. 20:04

    Erhalten Informationen über einen medizinischen Notfall an Bord von Port Russel sowie Menschen im Wasser in deren Nähe

  48. 20:08

    Versuch den OSC F86 auf Channel 16 (offizieller Funkkanal für Seenotfälle) zu erreichen um ihn zu informieren, dass wir Kurs auf Port Russel nehmen um bei medizinischem Notfall auszuhelfen, informieren Port Russel, dass wir unterwegs sind

  49. 20:48

    RIB erreicht Port Russel, Arzt und Rettungsassistent sind an Bord, 4 medizinische Notfälle

  50. 20:52

    Medizinische Crew bleibt an Bord von Port Russel um medizinische Notfälle zu behandeln, während das RIB zurück zu Iuventa kommt um seine Crew aufzunehmen

  51. 21:18

    Anweisung des MRCC Kurs auf Lampedusa zu nehmen

  52. 21:58

    Information an das MRCC über medizinische Behandlung an Bord der Port Russel


  1. 00:10

    Port Russel mit Kleidung und Rettungsdecken für gerettete Personen versorgt, medizinische Behandlung beendet, RIB und medizinisches Team in Stand By bei Port Russel, falls Evakuierung eines 2 Wochen alten Babys auf die CP941 nötig wird

  2. 00:23

    Entscheidung mit dem neuen OSC CP941 das Baby mit unserem RIB zu bringen

  3. 01:00

    Übergabe des Babys auf die CP302

  4. 01:30

    Such- und Rettungsoperation abgeschlossen, Kurs auf Lampedusa

  5. 18:45

    Alle im Hafen von Lampedusa

The MRCC's action will be repeated on 12 June. Once again, the "Iuventa" is ordered to Lampedusa with 28 refugees on board, although other ships could accommodate the people. On 19 May and 12 June, the "Iuventa" will be received by the police and the coast guard at the port of Lampedusa and the crews will be interrogated again. Again, the "Iuventa" cannot answer emergency calls from the sea rescue area at this time.

Obviously, the policemen's interrogation is also about alleged contact with a ship called "Shada", a ghost ship allegedly involved in arms smuggling. As it will become clear later on, the authorities accuse "Jugend Rettet" of having exchanged views with the crew of the "Shada". They're not presenting evidence of that. They can only show that the ships were close to each other on one day. However, the investigators' own records also show that completely different actors were present at the time in question: The Italian police ship Sirio409p inspected the "Shada".

The incident shows: The authorities are apparently working on collecting material that they can use against "Jugend Rettet".

Chapter #3 : June 18, 2017 – Sea Rescue at Breaking Point

The 18th of June 2017 begins with an emergency call before sunrise. The MRCC instructs the "Iuventa" to rescue a wooden boat that is still in Libyan waters at 4:40 in the morning. When the ship arrives at 6:20 a. m. at the sea border between Libya and international territory, it meets three wooden boats and a rubber boat with refugees from Libya. On the instructions of the MRCC,"Jugend Rettet" starts evacuating the boats together with another NGO, which was also sent to the rescue centre.

In the course of the rescue, another rubber boat from Libya will be added. An additional NGO also reaches the base and helps to rescue refugees from the boats. The "Iuventa" takes a total of 97 refugees on board, other refugees arrive on other ships. Both rubber boats are still being destroyed in the water.

Die Iuventa ist derzeit im Hafen von Trapani festgesetzt. Bild: Jugend Rettet
Die Iuventa ist derzeit im Hafen von Trapani festgesetzt. Bild: Jugend Rettet

In the confusing scenery, so-called Engine Fisher from the Libyan coast are added. This is not uncommon in the zone off Libya. They unscrew the engines from the other boats, take the three wooden boats in tow and drive back to Libya.

The Italians will later accuse "Jugend Rettet" of having worked with the Libyans. They don't have proof of that. The photographs presented by the Italian investigators are misleadingly titled.

The MRCC does not want to stand up for "Jugend Rettet" in this context. The authorities themselves had ordered the organisation to the place of deployment and coordinated the emergency rescue, as the deployment protocols show. In the following weeks the MRCC's behaviour will become even more questionable.

Chapter #4 : August 2, 2017 – Politically Motivated Prosecution

At the end of July, the EU is forced to take action in the light of media reports of dying in the Mediterranean. It does not focus on human rights violations in Libya, however, but targets rescue workers: while the military is awarded medals for rescue operations, the German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziére accuses civilian organisations of committing crimes in the Mediterranean Sea. The EU wants the Sailors to sign a Code of Conduct. Among other things, it stipulates that Italian police officers should be allowed to board civilian ships and that small ships such as the "Iuventa" should no longer be allowed to hand over refugees to larger ships, where they could be better served. It quickly becomes apparent that most organisations, including "Jugend Rettet", will not sign the text. A report by the scientific service in the Bundestag describes parts of the document as contrary to international law. Nevertheless, the Italian Minister of the Interior, to whom the MRCC is also subordinate, threatens to deny organisations access to Italian ports.

On 1 August, one day after the deadline for signature of the Code of Conduct expires,"Iuventa" receives an emergency call from the MRCC. At 5:32 a. m., the ship is unusually instructed to sail in the central Mediterranean Sea in an area with a width of 700 nautical miles and a search grid at a distance of three nautical miles. Normally, such a search operation is assigned a case number by the control center. However, this is not the case. It would take 40 hours to complete the grid. The MRCC is therefore proposing that the civil search aircraft "Moonbird" should also be sent out to the MRCC. The pilots could leave the search area within a few hours. However, the MRCC rejects: The center would send its own helicopter, so there is a risk of collision. Even after eight hours the helicopter is not visible above the search area. The ship of another rescue mission may not participate in the search and the dinghy of the "Iuventa" may not be let into the water. Instead, the MRCC cancels the search in the early evening - with no result.

Immediately afterwards, the MRCC instructs the "Iuventa" to approach the port of Lampedusa with two refugees on board. When the ship arrives there the following night at 2 a. m., not only the usual police officers and the coast guard are waiting for the ship, but also journalists. In the morning, articles appear in all Italian media that accuse "Iuventa" of crimes, illustrated with photos from Italian secret service archives.

The crew will be interrogated and the ship confiscated during the day. The order for this was signed on August 1, as the investigation documents show - while the "Iuventa" had to drive a search pattern in the Mediterranean Sea by order of the MRCC.

Epilogue: The EU Looks Away

On 2 August, the "Iuventa" is set on Lampedusa and brought to Sicily by the Italian authorities. The Italian coastguard begins a mission within Libyan territorial waters to "stop migration flows", as Italy says. On 7 August, the EU-funded Libyan coastguard in international waters threatens the rescue ship of the Spanish organisation "Open Arms" and shoots at the crew. Like other civilian rescuers, they continue to drive missions, but at a much higher risk. On August 10, the Libyan military declares its own "search and rescue zone" within 70 miles of Libya and prohibits NGOs from driving in it, even though this is contrary to international law. Militias supported by the EU prevent refugees from leaving Libya. The Mediterranean route is closed. The MRCC coordinates considerably fewer sea rescue operations. In Italy, the campaign for the parliamentary elections begins.

The "Iuventa" remains confiscated even after a trial, a complaint so far unsuccessful. Further missions of civilian rescue ships must be broken off in the face of threats from Libyans. Public awareness of the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea is falling sharply in the face of the forced withdrawal of organisations.

The EU continues to cooperate with Libya, despite the desolate conditions in the camps there and the criminal behaviour of the so-called Libyan coastguard.



The dossier is based on the investigation documents of the Italian Public Prosecutor's Office, e-mail traffic between Italian authorities and Jugend Rettet, mission logs and interviews with crews of Jugend Rettet.


Text – Arne Semsrott
Entwicklung – Gustav Pursche
Gestaltung – Nadine Stammen