On 11 August 2017, the Libyan authorities publicly announced the establishment of a search and rescue (SAR) zone and restricted the access to humanitarian vessels into the international waters off the Libyan coasts. Immediately afterwards, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome warned MSF about security risks associated with the threats publicly issued by the Libyan Coast Guard against humanitarian search and rescue (SAR) vessels operating in international waters.
Following these additional restrictions on independent humanitarian assistance and increasing blockade of migrants within Libya, MSF has decided to temporarily suspend the search and rescue activity of its ship, Prudence. The MSF medical support team will still assist the rescue capacity of the SOS Méditerranée-run boat Aquarius, which is currently patrolling in international waters.
“If these declarations are confirmed and the orders are implemented we see two grave consequences – there will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya,” declared Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager. “If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, there will be fewer ships in the area to rescue people from drowning. Those who will not drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya, which we know is a place of lawlessness, arbitrary detention and extreme violence.”
These declarations came barely a week after the announcement of the Italian Navy deployment inside Libyan waters aimed at increasing the capacity of Libyan coastguards to intercept migrant and refugees and send them back to Libya.
“The recent developments represent another worrying element of an increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving rescue operations,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s Director of Operations. “European states and Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. This is an unacceptable assault on people’s lives and dignity.”
MSF requests Libyan authorities to rapidly confirm that they will adhere to and respect the internationally recognised legal obligation to rescue boats in distress, and that they will allow this to take place in international and Libyan waters. MSF further requests that Libyan authorities clarify that all boats, operated by NGOs or anyone else, will be permitted to conduct these rescue activities unhindered and unharmed and that Libyan and Italian authorities will not interfere with the legally guaranteed right to disembark people in a place of safety.
“MSF refuses to be coopted into a system that aims at all cost to block people from seeking safety,” continues de le Vingne. “We call on the EU and Italian authorities to stop implementing deadly containment strategies that trap people in a country at war with no regard for their protection and assistance needs. Safe and legal pathways for refugees and migrants are urgently needed in order to reduce unnecessary death and suffering.”