Beginning on the morning of 9 May and over the following 72 hours, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have rescued 470 people from seven boats in distress in the Libyan and Maltese search and rescue zones and brought them on board our search and rescue ship, the Geo Barents, operating in the central Mediterranean sea.
Over the course of three intense days, the boats in distress were spotted from the bridge of the Geo Barents after alerts received from Alarm Phone, the Mediterranean monitoring organisation, and with the support of Pilotes Volontaires, a French-based non-profit organisation providing aerial observation in the central Mediterranean. None of the boats were identified by the relevant maritime rescue coordination centres.
Early on the morning of 9 May, our team spotted two rubber boats in distress carrying a total of 204 people. Among them was a nine-month-old boy named Mohammed who was carefully pulled from the crowd along with his mother by MSF teams and handed to safety on deck. All survivors on the rubber boats were soon transferred to Geo Barents.
More than 24 hours later, MSF received an alert about another overcrowded rubber boat, this time with 59 people on board. Geo Barents headed to its location with the guidance of a Pilotes Volontaires’ airplane and carried out the rescue.
Late in the day on 10 May, two new email alerts from Alarm Phone landed in MSF’s inbox, indicating that two more boats were in distress nearby. The rescue speedboats on Geo Barents were launched at around 9 pm and, after an intense five-hour search conducted in darkness, the team finally found the two boats drifting near an oil platform. The 111 survivors on board these vessels were rescued and transferred onto Geo Barents at around 2 am, ending the longest rescue since the beginning of the ship’s operation.
On 11 May, further alerts from Alarm Phone indicated that more boats were in distress, this time in international waters under the search and rescue responsibility of Malta. With the help of Pilotes Volontaires, Geo Barents navigated to the exact location of the first boat, where our team found 67 people drifting in a wooden vessel, all looking terrified, exhausted and disoriented. A few hours later, all the survivors were brought on board the MSF rescue ship.
“When the rescuers came I was almost unconscious,” said a 26-year-old woman from Syria. “I couldn’t understand what was happening. By that time, we were at least 48 hours at sea. I was sure I would die.”
The long day of rescues continued with another boat carrying 29 people, which was drifting in the Maltese search and rescue zone. Once again, no action was taken by the Maltese authorities.
“It’s incomprehensible that, after all these years of deadly migration journeys in the Mediterranean, private organisations like us are taking on the major burden of saving lives at sea,” says Juan Matias Gil, MSF head of mission for Search and Rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. “At least 24,000 people have officially drowned or gone missing since 2014, yet Europe is still turning a blind eye to what is happening on its southern borders.”
“We were again appalled by the inaction of the Maltese and Italian authorities while almost 100 lives were hanging in the balance. The Maltese armed forces, who are primary responsible for rescues in the Maltese search and rescue zone, were informed at the same time as us, but they remained silent and inactive, neglecting their legal obligation to provide or coordinate assistance. They also ignored our request for a port of safety,” says Gil.
Most of the survivors on board Geo Barents have experienced physical abuse of various forms, including sexual violence and forced labour. Four embarked on their journey across the Mediterranean with fractured bones, the result of injuries inflicted during their time in Libya.
One survivor currently on board Geo Barents has diabetes and is dependent on insulin but has been without his vital medication for what is likely to have been weeks. Two other survivors have suffered psychotic episodes on board. All 470 survivors on board Geo Barents are either physically or mentally vulnerable and need to disembark to a safe place as soon as possible.
Despite our six requests, the Italian authorities, also responsible for search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean, haven’t granted us permission to disembark the survivors to a safe place.