Civil aerial reconnaissance mission at Europe’s deadly sea border

Sea-Watch and Humanitarian Pilots Initiative prevent deadly shipwrecks

More than 100 refugees and migrants on a sinking rubber boat were rescued at the last minute on Easter Sunday after they were spotted by a reconnaissance airplane far from any rescue ship. At least seven people had already drowned. Those hundred lives can be chalked up to the balance sheet of the first joint mission between Sea-Watch and the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative (HPI). Thanks to the generous support of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the light aircraft with the callsign “Moonbird” will be operating the whole summer.

The aerial reconnaissance mission initiated by Sea-Watch and the HPI fills a crucial gap in civil maritime rescue: first of all, by coordinating rescue operations to prevent shipwrecks, as happened on Easter Sunday. Yet it also exerts pressure on the EU by documenting its failure to help and its decision to allow people to drown on the Mediterranean. Our mission, and the mission statement which follows, is supported both by other NGOs from the civil rescue fleet and by respected political and humanitarian organisations like Pro Asyl and Medico International. We are certain that we have brought a new tool for political and humanitarian change to the table.

The ‘Moonbird’ after which the airplane is named is a migratory bird which every year covers the distance from the Earth to the Moon across the sea, and crosses numerous borders while doing so. There has always been migration, and in the past this phenomenon has been dealt with in many different ways. Isolation has never worked properly, but that is the policy the EU has decided for, and it is apparently ready to disregard the most fundamental human rights to do this. It is completely unacceptable that thousands of people die annually at the ‘border of prosperity’ between Europe and Africa. With our reconnaissance airplane we will do everything possible to end this situation.


We cannot tolerate extra-legal spaces where the European Union leaves refugees and migrants to drown in their thousands, or in which ‘pull-backs’ which violate international law take place. For this reason, we are undertaking a civil reconnaissance mission over the central Mediterranean: a light aircraft, operated by Sea-Watch and the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative, with the aim of uniting civil society initiatives to fight against the dying which is taking place at the deadliest border in the world.

With reconnaissance flights over the central Mediterranean, boats in distress will be discovered more quickly, the cooperation between civil rescue organisations will be improved and human rights violations such as ‘pull-backs’ from international waters will be documented. This aerial reconnaissance mission furthermore functions as a means of putting pressure on the European Union to make more resources available for rescues.

The undersigned organisations, groups and individuals are of one mind: the dying which is happening on a massive scale in the Mediterranean – over 5,000 deaths in the last year alone – is a political decision. These deaths are the product of a policy of isolation from the EU, which forces migrants and refugees to entrust their lives to smugglers and risk the dangerous journey, instead of crossing to Europe safely on a plane or ferry. We therefore demand: “Safe Passage, Now!” The dying could be ended overnight, but those responsible in the EU and the member states are refusing and are happy to keep using the Mediterranean as a deadly moat around Fortress Europe. Instead of taking measures against the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe or the factors which cause people to flee, the EU is closing itself off. To do this, no military intervention is apparently too expensive, and no regime too dictatorial to cooperate with.

The dying continues and shows no signs of slowing. Violations of the non-refoulement principle by the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard happen daily. Therefore, civil maritime rescue and particularly the monitoring work carried out by civil rescue organisations – now also from the air – remains indispensable. Against the normalisation of death and suffering. For an open and welcoming Europe