Humanitarian Search and Rescue in the Aegean Sea: Stuck Between Two Crises

Published 8 July 2020 / By Jude Bennett & Pat Rubio Bertran

Back to Articles

This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

From January to April 2020, over 8,000 refugees have reached Greece by sea, and at least 66 people have died or remain missing in the Aegean. Those figures showcase how humanitarian search and rescue remains vital in the Eastern Mediterranean route. However, as we will attempt to outline in this article, 2020 has erected more complex barriers than ever before to assist any distress at sea. As humanitarians working in the only professional search and rescue NGO in Greece, working off the island of Lesvos, we can affirm that, beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, the criminalization efforts towards rescuers and the current EU migration policies are the main barriers to saving lives at sea.

Refugee Rescue's crew on Mo Chara attempt to guide a dinghy to safe land.

Refugee Rescue's crew on Mo Chara attempt to guide a dinghy to safe land.

Riots, violence and new policies in Greece

In February, as clashes sparked between Greek protesters and the police over disagreements on the construction of new camps, our lifeboat Mo Chara was scheduled to be fitted for new engines. With Mo Chara, Gaelic for “my friend”, we rescued over 5,000 people in 2019, and over 6,500 in 2018.

While clashes were still ongoing in late February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that Turkey would no longer act as Europe’s gatekeeper - opening the borders to push people to cross into Greece. Then, thousands of migrants ventured to cross to Greece both on foot and by sea. Greece, with the support from the European Union, responded with increased militarization and violence at the border. It has been reported that at least two men were killed in a land border crossing and a child drowned at sea off Lesvos. With Mo Chara out of action because its engines were being changed, there was nothing our crew could do but observe with horror what was happening.

The increased tension created a perfect environment for right-wing groups, both national and foreign, to travel to the Greek islands and join the attacks against refugees, and also against humanitarian workers, volunteers and NGO properties. Even though our crew is based in a tiny fishermen’s village, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding solidarity and support to refugees crossing by sea, it was no longer able to afford us protection nor safety. In the midst of a very significant threat, we decided to evacuate our crew and team from the island, for the first time since the organization’s inception. The decision was not easy. Refugees continued to arrive in Lesvos, but the widespread impunity of attacks against humanitarian professionals left our crews unprotected.

Just after we returned to the island, the COVID-19 pandemic also reached Greek shores. In a matter of a week, we were forced to evacuate our team again in order to uphold our humanitarian and public health responsibility to limit the spread of the virus among local or refugee populations in Lesvos.

Intensified barriers to asylum during the Covid-19 pandemic

Without any humanitarian actors at sea, the Aegean has become the perfect setting for human rights violations. What reports show is horrifying: Unidentified men on speed boats attacking refugees at sea, violent push backs, including using rescue equipment to illegally return refugees to Turkish waters and abandoning people to drift at sea for hours. The latest? Installing a floating wall. Human rights violations at sea are not new, and humanitarian search and rescue assets have had to assume a new role as witness, demanding accountability from authorities. However it has come with a cost: criminalization.

Many of our volunteer crews work in health and emergency services in their home countries. While emergency services have been regarded as key workers and heroes during the pandemic, humanitarian rescuers continue being criminalized. Those same governments, and even the general public, support the closure of ports and the detention of rescue workers and vessels. But not only is search and rescue a key emergency service, it is also a duty under international law. States and ships are obliged to provide assistance to any persons in distress at sea, as established by the SOLAS Convention and UNCLOS. Nonetheless, European governments send a clear message: if you don’t carry the right passport, or you don’t have the right skin colour, you are not worth saving.

What Next?

The dilemma we face as an organization is clear. Our mission and reason we exist is to prevent any loss of life at sea, and it is extremely painful to watch how Europe continues to gamble with human lives in the Aegean. We do not know if we will be able to get back on the water, or if we do, at what cost? Whatever the outcome, we must continue pushing for safe and legal asylum pathways to Europe and we must not forget all those lives lost at sea.


Jude Bennett is the Co-Founder, former CEO and current Chairperson of Refugee Rescue. She holds an MA in Disaster Management with a focus on maritime humanitarian response.

Pat Rubio Bertran is the Program Lead for Refugee Rescue. She is also an LLM Candidate in Human Rights Law at the Brussels School of International Studies - University of Kent, specializing in legal research and advocacy with a focus on border externalization policies and refugee rights.

Refugee Rescue is the only professional and humanitarian Search and Rescue NGO operating 24/7 on the North Shore of Lesvos, Greece. As of 19 March 2020, Refugee Rescue has had to pause its operations in Lesvos due to COVID-19.

Two women hug after reaching safety in the North Shore of Lesvos.