Sea Watch vs the Libyan Coast Guard

Heller, Charles and Pezzani, Lorenzo. 2019. Sea Watch vs the Libyan Coast Guard. n/a. [Other]

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Abstract or Description

On 6 November 2017, a rescue vessel operated by the NGO Sea Watch (SW) and a patrol vessel of the Libyan coastguard were both en route towards a migrants’ boat, in distress in international waters.

The boat, a few hours out of Tripoli, was carrying between 130 and 150 passengers. A confrontational rescue operation ensued, and while SW was able to rescue fifty-nine passengers, bringing them to safety in Italy, at least twenty died before or during the incident, while forty-seven passengers were ultimately ‘pulled back’ to Libya, where several faced grave human rights violations – including being detained, beaten, and sold to another captor who tortured them to extract ransom from their families.

Before arriving on the scene, the Libyan vessel made contact with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre of the Italian coastguard, which informed them of a boat in distress. The vessel, the Ras Jadir, was one of four boats donated by Italy to the Libyan coastguard in May 2017; eight of the thirteen crew that day had been trained by the EU’s anti-smuggling operation, EUNAVFOR MED.

The way in which this incident played out is paradigmatic of new, drastic measures implemented by Italy and the EU in an attempt to stem migration across the central Mediterranean. This attempt follows a two-pronged strategy.

On one hand, European authorities aim to delegitimise and criminalise rescue NGOs, with the intention of ultimately ousting them from the central Mediterranean. On the other, those authorities provide material, technical, and political support to Libya’s coastguard, encouraging and enabling them to intercept boats and ‘pull back’ migrants to Libya.

A cornerstone of international law concerning refugees is the principle of ‘non-refoulement’: a refugee cannot be deported to a country in which they are likely to be the subject of persecution.

Through policy agreements and practical support, Italy and the EU have come to exercise strategic and operational control over the Libyan coastguard, guiding and inducing them to conduct ‘refoulement by proxy’.

Item Type:


Additional Information:

Forensic Oceanography Team

Principal Investigators
Charles Heller
Lorenzo Pezzani

GIS Analysis
Rossana Padeletti

Forensic Architecture Team

Project Coordinator
Stefan Laxness

Stefanos Levidis
Grace Quah
Nathan Su
Samaneh Moafi

Research Support
Eyal Weizman

Project Support
Christina Varvia
Sarah Nankivell

Republic and Canton of Geneva
Swiss National Science Foundation
WatchTheMed Platform
Sea Watch e.V.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures > Centre for Research Architecture



Item ID:


Date Deposited:

13 Jan 2022 11:46

Last Modified:

13 Jan 2022 11:46


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