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Search and rescue: MSF, SOS MEDITERRANEE, and SEA-WATCH warn of more deaths in the Central Mediterranean

04 Aug 22 | 05 Aug 22

Search and rescue: MSF, SOS MEDITERRANEE, and SEA-WATCH warn of more deaths in the Central Mediterranean

The MSF team on board the Geo Barents undertake training before their departure to the search and rescue zone Caption
The MSF team on board the Geo Barents undertake training before their departure to the search and rescue zone

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF), SOS MEDITERRANEE, and SEA-WATCH are urgently calling for European state-led search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean to prevent more deaths this summer.

Within five days, sixteen boats in distress were rescued by Geo Barents – a search and rescue ship operated by MSF – and Ocean Viking – a search and rescue ship chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The week before, the Sea-Watch 3 was also able to rescue five boats in distress at sea with a total of 444 survivors. 

“It is our legal and moral duty not to let these people drown”

Juan Matias Gil
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MSF search and rescue

Without the presence of civil search and rescue assets in the central Mediterranean, the children, women and men rescued during these life-saving operations would have been left to their fate in international waters off Libya – the world's deadliest sea migration route.

Covering the void

The disengagement of European maritime capacity from search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, as well as delays in assigning a ‘place of safety’ for the disembarkation of survivors, have undermined the integrity and capacity of the search and rescue system and therefore the ability to save lives. 

Even though, as prescribed by maritime law, we systematically seek coordination for our operations, the Libyan maritime authorities almost never respond, neglecting their legal obligation to coordinate assistance. 

However, when they intervene and intercept boats in distress, Libyan maritime authorities systematically forcibly return the survivors to Libya, which cannot be considered a place of safety according to the United Nations. 

Meanwhile, despite the critical lack of adequate search and rescue assets in this stretch of the sea, people continue to flee Libya and risk their lives to seek safety. 

During summer, when weather conditions are the most favourable to attempt such a dangerous journey, departures from Libya are more frequent and a large search and rescue fleet is required. 

MSF Community Health Educators (from left to right April Odeka, Charles Onanikem and Chidinma Arua) go to the market of Abakaliki to raise awareness about Lassa fever. They explain how to avoid the disease, and what to do if someone gets infected.

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On 7 July, the MSF team conducted six rescues in 12 hours, saving the lives of 315 people in distress Caption
On 7 July, the MSF team conducted six rescues in 12 hours, saving the lives of 315 people in distress

“Since the beginning of the summer season, our team has conducted three missions at sea,” says Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative.

“Unfortunately, the first rescue ended tragically, with nearly 30 people missing and one woman who did not make it. The other two missions have been very intense, with six rescues in twelve hours and eleven rescues in 72 hours, saving a total of 974 people. 

“Due to the state of necessity, we currently have 659 people on board the Geo Barents, which is above the vessel capacity. We kept receiving alerts that were left unanswered or spotting boats in distress from our bridge and it is our legal and moral duty not to let these people drown. 

“Covering the void of the state-led search and rescue fleet is simply not enough given the needs and increasing capacity in the Central Mediterranean is more than necessary.”

A place of safety

On 30 July, Sea-Watch 3 disembarked 438 people in Taranto, Italy. 

Then, on 1 August, Ocean Viking disembarked the 387 women, children and men rescued between 24 and 25 July in Salerno.

“The last and only hope they carry is to manage to flee Libya, which they often call “hell on earth”, via the sea, regardless of the risks”

Xavier Lauth
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SOS MEDITERRANEE

However, the Geo Barents is still waiting for a solution to be found for survivors who have been on board for a week.

“Keeping survivors stranded at sea for days waiting to disembark in a place of safety is an additional violence imposed on already extremely vulnerable people,” says Xavier Lauth, SOS MEDITERRANEE director of operations.

“Survivors rescued by the Ocean Viking in the past six years have been recounting harrowing stories of violence and abuse to our teams. The last and only hope they carry is to manage to flee Libya, which they often call “hell on earth”, via the sea, regardless of the risks. 

“The removal of adequate and competent European search and rescue services in international waters off Libya has proven to be deadly and ineffective in preventing dangerous crossings.” 

After five days at sea, a group of survivors disembark from the Geo Barents in Taranto, Italy Caption
After five days at sea, a group of survivors disembark from the Geo Barents in Taranto, Italy

“While the European authorities are not willing to fulfil their duty to rescue people at sea, they are also delaying the disembarkation of rescued people by NGOs,” says Mattea Weihe, SEA-WATCH spokesperson.

“This unnecessary waiting for days exhausts the rescued people: they have survived the Mediterranean, but instead of finding safety, they have to wait for days at the closed gates of Europe for their human rights to be respected.”

MSF, SOS MEDITERRANEE and SEA-WATCH demand that European member and associated states provide an adequate state-led dedicated and proactive search and rescue fleet in the Central Mediterranean, a fast and adequate response to all distress calls, and a predictable disembarkation mechanism for survivors.

MSF and Mediterranean search and rescue

Every year, thousands of people fleeing violence, insecurity, and persecution attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

They make this treacherous journey via North Africa and Turkey, in search of relative safety in Europe.

And, every year, countless lives are lost at sea, while people face unimaginable cruelty on their way through transit countries such as Libya.

Between 2017 and 2021, at least 8,500 people have drowned or gone missing while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean – the world’s deadliest sea border.