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Mediterranean search and rescue

Mediterranean search and rescue

The MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE take part in a rescue of multiple boats adrift at sea. More than 500 people are safely brought onboard Aquarius on 1 November 2017. Caption
The MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE take part in a rescue of multiple boats adrift at sea. More than 500 people are safely brought onboard Aquarius on 1 November 2017.

Every year, thousands of people flee violence, insecurity, and persecution.

They attempt a treacherous journey via North Africa and Turkey, in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

And every year, countless lives are lost on these journeys.

In the first seven months of 2021, it's estimated that over 1,000 people drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

"People in dangerous situations like Libya have no choice over how they get to safety. They should not be left to drown."

Vickie Hawkins
MSF UK executive director

Help us care for people seeking safety

Our independent funding from private donors like you allows us to work in the Mediterranean. It means we can provide medical care where the need is greatest, with no strings attached. 

Even when there are no rescue boats at sea, people still risk their lives by trying to cross the Central Mediterranean in flimsy rubber and wooden dinghies.

For many, this deadly crossing is the last resort. A lack of search and rescue capacity only serves to make the risks they endure more extreme.

The number of people attempting to escape mostly from Libyan and Tunisian shores by sea in the first four months of 2021 has tripled in comparison to the same period last year, as the number of deaths and missing persons.

As of 13 May 2021, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is chartering its own ship, Geo Barents, to save lives and provide emergency medical care to people rescued on the Central Mediterranean.

This is the eighth consecutive year MSF teams have been compelled to launch search and rescue activities due to EU states abdicating their responsibility to provide proactive search and rescue in the central Mediterranean.

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MSF search and rescue: the facts

The central Mediterranean remains the world’s deadliest sea border, with more than 630 people reported dead or missing in 2021.

Not only are European governments turning a blind eye, abandoning people for hours, days and sometimes weeks at sea without assistance, but they are also actively conspiring to push vulnerable people back to Libya – the launchpad for many people making the crossing.

According to the United Nations, Libya is not safe. Yet almost 10,000 people have been intercepted and forcibly returned into a cycle of torture, abuse and arbitrary detention since the beginning of the year.

Everyone has the right to flee for their safety, to seek asylum, and to have their asylum claim assessed. At no point should this involve anyone being forced to risk their lives.

Refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are not interchangeable terms. The following is a brief explanation of the very different legal definitions:

  • refugee is a person who has fled his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Refugee status is assessed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or a sympathetic state.
  • An asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee and is seeking asylum in another country, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.
  • migrant is someone who chooses to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families.

As a humanitarian organisation, MSF does not have a mandate or means to assess the immigration status of the people we assist.

We provide medical care without judgment and strongly believe that no human being should drown when the means exist to prevent it.


Listen to a rescue unfold on this episode of Everyday Emergency, the MSF podcast

Our primary aim is to prevent loss of life, not to provide transport.

International law says that people rescued should be disembarked in a place of safety.

As a humanitarian organisation concerned with the well-being of vulnerable people rescued, we will seek to swiftly disembark in the closest safe port.

MSF and Sea-Watch do not decide the port of disembarkation - this is decided by the competent maritime authorities.

The first rescue carried out by Ocean Viking, a rescue ship MSF worked on from 2019-2020

The Geo Barents is a research vessel, built in 2007. The ship has undergone modifications to operate as a rescue vessel and is now fully equipped with a medical clinic and recovery rooms.

The ship can carry 300 survivors on board but could if needed in an emergency accommodate more.

Geo Barents will be prepared for the likelihood of having people on board for longer periods given the previous experience with long stand-offs at sea.

In the context of a global pandemic, we are also preparing ourselves for the possibility that we may have to deal with COVID-19 on board and are taking all necessary precautions to mitigate the risks associated with this. 

MSF's new chartered ship, the M/V Geo Barents in Fiskarstrand shipyard Norway getting ready to sail Caption
MSF's new chartered ship, the M/V Geo Barents in Fiskarstrand shipyard Norway getting ready to sail

The UK Government has exacerbated this appalling situation, having supported the Libyan coastguard through training and funding, enabling the return of refugees and migrants to detention centres where thousands of people, including children, were kept in inhumane conditions.  

“We believe the UK Government has a responsibility to refugees and migrants who have suffered due to its actions in Libya," says Vickie Hawkins, executive director of MSF UK. "They were well aware of the detention conditions to which refugees and migrants were being returned through their own humanitarian support to those detention centres, and so we are calling on them to now provide safe and legal routes directly to the UK. They should also contribute to state-led search and rescue in the Mediterranean, and publicly support NGO search and rescue efforts at this critical moment.”

“People in dangerous situations like Libya have no choice over how they get to safety. They should not be left to drown or to be locked up in detention centres as a punishment for taking the sea crossing or to deter others from making similar journeys. It is not too late for the government to change course away from this mindlessly punitive approach.”

We are compelled first and foremost to assist people who are dying in the Mediterranean. We have the means and, for us, ignoring the problem is not an option.

Of course, we are aware that by doing this we are entering a very contentious political debate in Europe.

But we believe that inaction cannot be justified on ideological grounds and that, in fact, as a medical organisation that takes its cues from medical ethics, we must take action. 

Find out more about our principles >

Listen to MSF nurse Courtney Bercan describe her time on an MSF search and rescue ship on Everyday Emergency, the MSF podcast

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