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As per the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, at least 20'000 people are confirmed to have drowned in the Central Mediterranean since 2014, with a much higher number estimated dead. These men, women, and children lost their lives fleeing the horrors of war on unseaworthy boats, seeking a better life in safety and freedom from fear. This loss of life is not a natural disaster, but a man-made crisis: Many more could have survived, but in the name of “migration control” Coast Guards are kept inactive in ports while commercial vessels are deterred from doing the right thing and getting people out of the water. Instead of discouraging people from fleeing, this misguided policy just increases the death toll, all while rendering highly-capable naval vessels and aircraft useless. HPI as a civil, non-profit, and non-governmental actor has decided to step in and try to fill this dangerous gap as much as possible, in cooperation with the German charitable association Sea-Watch.





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In response to that crisis, HPI has since 2016 been jointly operating a civil monitoring mission with the German organisation Sea-Watch. Its goals are to:

a) monitor the Central Mediterranean for boats in distress, and inform competent rescue coordination centres, as well as vessels in the vicinity, about their presence;

b) document human rights violations carried out on the high seas for public awareness and eventual prosecution;

c) ensure compliance with national and international legal obligations by both state and non-state actors through a permanent operational presence.

In short, our goal is to ensure that nobody is left behind to die on a flimsy rubber boat in the Mediterranean, a hundred miles or more from the next shore. In addition, the Central Mediterranean must never become a black hole. Citizens need access to independent information on what is happening at their borders. Because even for states, compliance with the law is not optional.


We are currently operating two aircraft: Seabird 1 and Seabird 1, both type Beechcraft Baron 58. With a range of 1'500 miles, respectively, both aircraft are capable of covering vast areas from above, for the fraction of the cost needed to operate a ship that can only see a few miles in each direction. This makes them highly efficient to monitor the whole area of a rectangle between the Libyan coast and the islands of Malta and Lampedusa.

A typical mission lasts 7-10 h of flight time, and requires the efforts of many people both in the air and on the ground. We fly these missions in a difficult environment, not only continuously over water, but also close to a country at civil war. That makes for challenging flying, as we must fly low over the water during our monitoring flights, braving extreme heat, humidity and Sahara dust, while also staying clear of frequent military traffic in our area of operations.

Unable to afford expensive camera/sensor equipment, we keep a lookout for boats in distress the old way, with binoculars only. That works well in daytime, but keeps us from monitoring the area after dark. Our technical options may be limited compared to the sophisticated planes operated by navies, air forces, and private security companies, but our volunteer crews make up for that in dedication and professionalism.

...Saving lives at sea must remain the key priority for all and UNHCR commends the action of all those involved in the many rescue operations that take place between Europe and North Africa...

...HPIs operation Moonbird is one such NGO structure that seeks to provide support to Search and Rescue (SAR) operations through the important asset of a plane which identifies and reports boats in distress in the area...

Kahin Ismail

UNHCR Malta, 4th July 2017



What we do makes a big difference: In 4'000 h of operation since 2016, our crews were involved in locating more than 25'000 people in distress, and alerting national authorities and nearby vessels to their fate. Unfortunately, we have also been forced to witness egregious crimes: Botched or even sabotaged rescue operations, people getting killed, many more being forced back to Libya in blatant violation of the non-refoulement principle.


But against this stand countless instances where our mere presence ensured that laws were respected and people in danger taken to safety. This real difference is why, even after more than five years, we still launch flights every week. We do hope that soon our effort will become unnecessary again, with governments finally returning to their legal commitments to saving lives at sea. Until then, we will keep flying. Donate for this project if you want to join us in this effort.

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