© Maud Veith/SOS Méditerranée

Mediterranean search and rescue

We are currently facing the greatest displacement crisis since World War Two

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 2017 alone, 3,119 people are thought to have died or gone missing during the crossing.

"A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea. Faced with thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and crises, Europe has closed its borders, forcing people in search of protection to risk their lives and die at sea. There is no more time to think, these lives must be saved now."

Loris de filippipresident of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Italy

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MSF search and rescue: the facts

MSF search and rescue operations are coordinated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome and comply with the law at all times. In line with the international maritime law, all rescue operations at sea happen under the coordination of an MRCC (in this case the Italian Coast Guard Centre for the Coordination of Rescue on Sea).

We patrol in international waters at around 25 nautical miles off the coast of Libya during the day, only moving closer to territorial waters if we have been instructed to do so by the MRCC or we become aware of a boat in distress. At night, we operate in international waters at 30 to 35 nautical miles from Libya.

Who is rescued?

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 agency involved in search and rescue, 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.

Where are the people rescued at sea taken?

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

When a situation arose in which we had to intervene, we did so under the direction of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome.

They also decided where those we rescued should disembark, as dictated by the laws of the sea.

As a rule, those we rescued were taken either to reception centers in southern Italy (Sicily) or transferred from search and rescue boats to Italian coast guard vessels.

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A compromise to MSF’s neutrality?

We felt compelled first and foremost to assist people who were dying in the Mediterranean. We had the means and, for us, ignoring the problem was 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. 

MSF in the Mediterranean: 2017

In 2017, MSF continued its search and rescue operations to assist refugees, asylum seekers and migrants on the perilous central Mediterranean Sea route, while facing increasing political and operational challenges.

According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 2,835 people drowned while attempting to cross from Libya to Europe by sea in 2017. The UN migration agency also noted that the number of people rescued and brought to ports of safety in Italy in 2017 was the lowest for four years – around 120,000.

The fall in numbers departing from Libya was hailed as a success by some, as it meant fewer lives would be lost at sea. However, the decrease was a result of agreements between Libya, Italy and the EU as part of a broader strategy to seal off the coast of Libya and ‘contain’ refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in a country where they are exposed to extreme and widespread violence and exploitation.





© Gabriele François Casini/MSF

The EU-supported Libyan coastguard scaled up its activities in international waters, intercepting refugees and migrants and bringing them back to Libya. Although these activities are presented as ‘rescue operations’, migrants and refugees are not being returned to a port of safety. On numerous occasions, Libyan coastguard vessels displayed threatening and violent behaviour towards unarmed NGO vessels carrying out search and rescue operations. In May, MSF witnessed a Libyan coastguard vessel firing gunshots into the air as it approached a boat in distress, further endangering the lives of refugees and migrants on board.

In an increasingly hostile environment, in which politicians in Italy and other European countries attempted to undermine public support for search and rescue, NGOs faced unfounded accusations of collaboration and collusion with traffickers. The code of conduct proposed by the Italian Ministry of Interior legitimised a long-running political campaign to discredit and scapegoat NGOs who already operated within a clear legal framework and in line with all national, international and maritime laws. A rescue ship was impounded in Italy pending legal proceedings and a nationalist vigilante group even chartered its own boat for several weeks in order to actively disrupt lifesaving activities.

Despite this, MSF teams on the dedicated search and rescue vessels Prudence and Aquarius (the latter run in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE) were able to rescue 23,852 refugees and migrants from unseaworthy boats and bring them to a port of safety in Italy in 2017. As a result of the drop in the number of boats reaching international waters, MSF decided to temporarily suspend its boat Prudence in October.

MSF doctors treated people for injuries they had suffered while in Libya and heard their accounts of violence and abuse. Many patients also had severe skin infections or chemical burns, and during the winter months, the team saw numerous cases of hypothermia. Over 10 per cent of all women rescued were pregnant. Two babies were born safely on board the MSF ships, and were named Mercy and Christ. The team also recovered 13 dead bodies.





© Guglielmo Mangiapane

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