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Mediterranean search and rescue

Mediterranean search and rescue

Rescue of a third rubber boat on Wednesday, November 1st. 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.

An estimated 1,336 people drowned while attempting to cross from Libya to Europe by sea in 2019.

No human being should be left to drown, to sink beneath the waves. No human being should be forced to endure torture and suffering. Yet this is the consequence of criminal dereliction of duty by European governments.

Oliver Behn
MSF director of operations

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 who attempted to escape from Libya by sea in the first six-months of 2020 increased four-fold in comparison to the same period last year, despite an almost complete lack of dedicated SAR capacity in the region.

The majority of those who departed from the North African coast never made it.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has now returned to the central Mediterranean, embarking on a new life-saving collaboration with Sea-Watch, onboard the Sea-Watch 4 search and rescue ship. 

Latest news: 20 September 2020

Following a maiden voyage rescuing 354 people at sea, Sea-Watch 4 has become the fifth civilian rescue ship to be detained by Italian authorities in the last five months.

After being subjected to a Port State Control, like the other four ships (Alan Kurdi, Aita Mari, Ocean Viking and Iuventa) the Italian coast guard announced on  it had discovered “irregularities of a technical and operational nature to the extent that they risk compromising not only the safety of the crew but also of those who have been or could be rescued” on all five ships. 

Sea-Watch 4 must urgently be released so that it can recommence life-saving search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean and the ongoing attacks on NGO’s trying to provide assistance to desperate people must stop.

Key facts










MSF search and rescue: the facts

The Central Mediterranean remains the world’s deadliest sea border, with at least 101 people reported dead or missing in June 2020 alone. Not only are European governments turning a blind eye, abandoning people for hours, days and sometimes weeks at sea without assistance, they are actively conspiring to push vulnerable people back to Libya.

According to the United Nations, Libya is not safe. Yet almost 6,000 people have been intercepted and forcibly returned into a cycle of torture, abuse and arbitrary detention since the beginning of the year, as part of a bilateral agreement with Libya, funded by European member states.

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, the rescue ship MSF worked on from 2019-2020

The former oceanographic research vessel Poseidon, now renamed Sea-Watch 4, was bought in February by Sea-Watch and the United4Rescue coalition, led by the Protestant Church in Germany.

It has since been refitted for search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean Sea. MSF, whose German section is also a supporter of United4Rescue, provides medical and humanitarian assistance on board Sea-Watch 4.

We staff the four-person medical team, including a doctor and midwife, alongside two communications and advocacy personnel, while Sea-Watch runs the ship and the rescue operations with a partly volunteer crew of 21 people; MSF is responsible for delivering emergency medical care, which includes running the ship’s clinic.

Together Sea-Watch and MSF provide humanitarian assistance, such as providing food and essential items, as well as identifying people who are particularly vulnerable.

The Sea-Watch 4 in the port of Burriana Caption

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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