Sea Watch vs. Libyan Coast Guard

Mare Clausum

The Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard Case

6 November 2017

Video reconstruction by Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture
Report by Forensic Oceanography

On 6 November 2017, the rescue NGO Sea Watch (SW) and a patrol vessel of the Libyan Coast Guard (LYCG) simultaneously directed themselves towards a migrants’ boat in distress in international waters. The boat, which had departed from Tripoli a few hours earlier, carried between 130 and 150 passengers. A confrontational rescue operation ensued, and while SW was eventually able to rescue and bring to safety in Italy 59 passengers, at least 20 people died before or during these events, while 47 passengers were ultimately pulled back to Libya, where several faced grave human rights violations – including being detained, beaten, and sold to an other captor who tortured them to extract ransom from their families. The unfolding of this incident has been reconstructed in a video by Forensic Oceanography in collaboration with Forensic Architecture.

To reconstruct the circumstances of this particular incident, however, Forensic Oceanography has produced a detailed written report which argues it is also necessary to understand the policies that shaped the behaviour of the actors involved, and the patterns of practices of which this event was only a particular instantiation. Before arriving on the scene, the LYCG liaised with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre of the Italian Coast Guard, which informed them of the presence of the boat in distress. The Ras Jadir, the very patrol vessel of the LYCG that engaged in reckless behaviour and thus contributed to the death of several passengers, was one of the four patrol boats that had been donated by Italy to the LYCG on the 15 May 2017, in presence of the Italian Minister of Interior. On board that vessel on the day of the events, 8 out of the 13 crew members had received training from the EU’s anti-smuggling operation, EUNAVFOR MED.

Based on these elements, the Mare Clausum report argues that this particular incident is paradigmatic of the new, drastic measures that have been implemented by Italy and the EU to stem migration across the central Mediterranean. This multilevel policy of containment operates according to a two-pronged strategy which aims, on the one hand, to delegitimise, criminalise and ultimately oust rescue NGOs from the central Mediterranean; on the other, to provide material, technical and political support to the LYCG so as to enable them to intercept and pull back migrants to Libya more effectively. This undeclared operation to seal off the central Mediterranean is what we refer to as Mare Clausum.

While in the report “Blaming the Rescuers”, released in June 2017, [1] Forensic Oceanography has analysed in detail the targeting of rescue NGOs, the Mare Clausum report focuses instead on the second aspect of this strategy. The report shows that through policy agreements and multiform support to the LYCG, Italy and the EU have come to exercise both strategic and operational control over the LYCG. In this way, the LYCG has been made to operate refoulement by proxy on behalf of Italy and the EU, in contravention to one of the cornerstones of international refugee law, the principle of non-refoulement[2]

[1] Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, ‘Blaming the Rescuers’, June 2017,
[2] According to Article 33(1) of the 1951 Refugee Convention (CSR51): “No contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Forensic Oceanography Team

Charles Heller

Lorenzo Pezzani

Rossana Padeletti

Forensic Architecture Team

Stefan Laxness

Stefanos Levidis

Grace Quah

Nathan Su

Samaneh Moafi

Christina Varvia

Eyal Weizman


WatchTheMed Platform

Swiss National Science Foundation

Republic of Canton and Geneva

Footage by Sea Watch e.V.

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