SAR activities June 2017
Mediterranean migration

In 6 months to July 2018, 1 out of every 18 people who tried to cross the Central Mediterranean drowned or went missing

The vast majority of people attempting the Mediterranean crossing pass through Libya, where they are exposed to horrific levels of violence, including kidnapping, torture and extortion.

European attempts to stem migration by strengthening national borders and bolstering detention facilities outside its borders are pushing people into smugglers hands to get them past checkpoints, across borders, through fences, out of prisons and ultimately onto boats on the Mediterranean Sea.

For those people who do make it to Europe, the challenges - and dangers faced - start again once onshore. A lack of shelter, being forced to live in unhygienic conditions or in adverse weather, treacherous border crossings, hostile authorities - in these circumstances, people become sick, injured, or struggle with mental health issues.

Instead of confronting the vicious cycle that their own policies are creating, politicians have hidden behind unfounded accusations towards NGOs and individuals who attempt to help people in dire straits.

MSF and search and rescue

Between May 2015 and December 2018, we provided search and rescue operations with boats in the Central Mediterranean. In December 2018, we ended the last of our search and rescue activities when we were forced to terminate the operations of the search and rescue boat Aquarius, which we operated in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE.

During our Search and Rescue operations, MSF had been shot at by the European-funded Libyan coast guard and repeatedly accused of collusion with traffickers.

On three occasions in 2017 our team onboard Aquarius witnessed refugees and migrants aboard unseaworthy vessels being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard in international waters as EU military assets at the scene looked on.

On 31 October, 24 November and 8 December 2017, Aquarius was instructed to standby and was forced to watch as hundreds of people were pushed back to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard.

Migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Libya face high levels of violence, extortion, and arbitrary detention with serious consequences to their physical and mental health. For these reasons, among others, returning people rescued at sea to Libya is a clear breach of international maritime, refugee, and humanitarian law.


Disturbing stories

"The stories we started to get toward the end were more and more disturbing…the smugglers would just pick someone and shoot them" - MSF Logistician Shaun Cornelius is on board the Aquarius as teams offload supplies and recount their experiences.
Ikram N'gadi

Criminalisation of lifesaving search and rescue

In 2018, our Search and Rescue operations encountered ever-larger obstacles, in an increasingly hostile environment, amid intense political pressure. In June, Italian and Maltese authorities denied the Aquarius a safe port to disembark 629 people on board; from this point, Italian ports were effectively closed to NGO search and rescue vessels.

In both August and September, the Aquarius was stripped of its flag and registration by the Gibraltar and Panama Maritime Authorities, respectively, after coming under political pressure.

Hostile attacks on Aquarius continued in November, when the Italian judiciary requested the seizure of Aquarius due to spurious claims of waste mismanagement.

Without a flag and registration, Aquarius was unable to continue its lifesaving mission and in December 2018, it was forced to terminate its search and rescue activities.

Meanwhile, people continue to attempt to cross the Central Mediterranean, but without the Aquarius and other Search and Rescue vessels, the rate at which people are drowning has skyrocketed.

Between January and July 2018, one out of every 18 people who attempted to cross the Central Mediterranean drowned or went missing. This is nearly three times the rate observed over the same period in 2017. In September 2018 alone, it was estimated that one in five attempting to flee Libya by sea died or went missing.

Our ships

Over the past three years, we have operated, or been partners on, five ships:

  • Phoenix, in partnership with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS);
  • Dignity I;
  • Bourbon Argos;
  • Prudence; and
  • Aquarius, in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE.

Medical care

Our medical teams on board treated violence-related injuries resulting from time in detention, torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence.

Women, especially pregnant women, received dedicated care thanks to the presence of a midwife. Our midwives assisted the delivery of several babies onboard.

We also provided care to people with skin diseases, dehydration, hypothermia, scabies and serious injuries such as chemical burns caused by fuel mixing with sea water during the crossing.

Psychological first aid was provided by trained cultural mediators and follow-up with more dedicated mental health care was either provided on the boat or onshore.

During all these consultations our teams heard horrific stories; many of the people we rescued are victims of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

In 2017, we launched a website in English, Spanish, French and Italian dedicated to our search and rescue operations. It provides answers to frequently asked questions and features an interactive map.

What is MSF doing on land?

Once on land, people arriving in Europe discover the dangerous border crossings, are often beaten by authorities, and are forced to live in atrocious conditions, usually outdoors - including during winter.

In one migrant camp in Italy, a quarter of respondents to a survey said there was poor hygiene conditions in the camp. In a nearby settlement, more than one in ten said there was a lack of drinking water.

I’m sleeping under the bridge with other people. I have no money and no way of communicating with my family. I’m really tired. Nobody takes care of us, nobody asks me how I’m feeling or how I’m living. Migrant living in Roja River settlement, northern Italy

In France, Italy, Greece, Serbia, Sweden, Belgium, and Germany our teams have provided or are providing a range of services including medical and psychological support.

We also provide shelter, water, sanitation and essential relief items at reception centres, informal settlements and transit camps.

Support centres

Our teams in France identify young people, who have usually undertaken the journey unaccompanied, and offer them support through a day centre for minors in Paris. Teams there provide respite, medical care and administrative assistance through the drop-in day centre.

MSF also runs specialised centres for the rehabilitation of survivors of torture in Greece and Athens most of whom came across the seas seeking safety and protection in Europe.

A collage of Aquarius
A collage by Hong Kong illustrator Ah Leung to put different scenes of MSF's search and rescue operation into the body of the vessel itself.
Ah Leung
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