After five rescues in less than two days, almost 400 people have been rescued and brought aboard the Geo Barents search and rescue (SAR) ship in the Central Mediterranean. Many of the survivors are unaccompanied minors and small children. With dangerous weather conditions looming, we are now calling on Italy to provide a place of safety for these vulnerable people as soon as possible.
Amid very harsh weather conditions, our teams conducted five challenging rescues. Many of the survivors were suffering from hypothermia after prolonged exposure to the elements or falling in the water. Survivors also faced seasickness, dehydration, loss of appetite and fuel inhalation. Among the 367 people on board, 172 are minors and 134 of them are unaccompanied.
“Imagine being on an overcrowded boat without a life vest. Imagine being surrounded by waves up to three metres high, while your clothes are soaked and you are suffering from fuel inhalation,” says Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator on board the Geo Barents.
“Imagine running out of food and water as time wears on, having no protection from the sun, wind, and rain. Imagine calling for help and no one answers. This is the reality we are witnessing at sea.”
Critical rescue and fuel intoxication
On the morning of 22 October, we conducted our first rescue. Thirty six survivors were brought on board the Geo Barents from a wooden boat. At the same time we received a new alert – this time a rubber boat in distress located several hours away.
“We got there at night and it was completely dark. The waves were more than three metres high at one point, and there was a lot of wind,” says Leo Southall, MSF deputy SAR team leader on board the Geo Barents. “The boat was in very fragile condition and the people on board had inhaled fuel fumes.”
After two intense hours, the team was able to get all 65 survivors on board. One person had to be brought on board by stretcher, and while the survivors were relieved, many were anxious and exhausted after being at sea for more than 24 hours.
The boat had been in dangerous waters for three days, with 100 people on board, including 42 children. Leaving people to drift at sea for days is unacceptable.Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator on board the Geo Barents
Ignored by authorities
That same night the Geo Barents received a third alert – another overcrowded wooden boat was in distress. Although authorities were aware of the situation, no one had responded or intervened. It took our team nine hours to reach the boat, while neither authorities nor other nearby vessels provided assistance.
“This is another clear example of how nearby coastal states are refusing to take any responsibility for people in distress at sea. The boat had been in dangerous waters for three days, with 100 people on board, including 42 children,” says Willemen. “Leaving people to drift at sea for days is unacceptable.
“Once again, we are witnessing how European migration control policies are endangering the lives of thousands of people, by having no proactive search and rescue capacity at sea and failing to provide a response to all distress calls. It’s unacceptable that NGOs are left to fill the deadly gap,” she says.
People must not be returned to Libya
By 23 October, the Geo Barents had 201 people on board, when it received a new alert of another rubber boat in distress six hours away. As our team reached the area, we witnessed the Libyan Coast Guard approaching the rubber boat quickly, maneuvering dangerously around it. The previous day, we had witnessed migrants and refugees on board a Libyan Coast Guard vessel next to an empty boat that was set on fire.
We feared another interception; if the Libyan Coast Guard had intercepted the boat the survivors would in all likelihood have been forcibly returned to the cycle of violence and exploitation in Libya. Our teams got there first, and managed to bring the 95 survivors on board the Geo Barents.
“European States and institutions must immediately suspend their political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard and stop the system of forced returns to Libya. Libya is not a safe place,” says Willemen.
Requesting a port of safety
On 24 October, our team performed another critical rescue of a rubber boat in distress, which was filling up with water. Seventy-one people were rescued and are now safely on board of the Geo Barents, which now has 367 people on board in total.
“The past couple of days have illustrated the humanitarian catastrophe taking place at the southern border of Europe,” says Willeman. “With only humanitarian vessels monitoring the world’s deadliest migration route, the need for more search and rescue capacity is desperately needed,” she says.
“We are now calling on Italy to provide a place of safety as soon as possible. An extremely rough weather forecast is looming and we are very concerned, having almost 400 survivors on board who have been through enough. Their suffering must end,” says Willemen.