People in Libya are also often detained in detention centres, usually in horrendous conditions - and those in detention in Tripoli have been trapped in the ongoing conflict in the city, with some centres having been caught in airstrikes, with people unable to escape, and then killed or injured.
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
Since May 2015, we have provided search and rescue capacity, or provided medical care during search and rescue operations, in the central Mediterranean Sea.
We currently run search and rescue operations on the M/V Geo Barents. The Geo Barents has been chartered from Norwegian shipping company Uksnøy, and sails under the flag of Norway.
There is currently very little dedicated search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean, but people are still trying to flee Libya. In 2022, 253,205 people attempted to cross the Mediterranean; 42 per cent of those were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya, despite that Libya is not a place of safety. People continue to drown or go missing during the attempt; 2,367 died or went missing in 2022.
We work in search and rescue because it is a duty, fuelled by the humanitarian need to prevent people from drowning while they seek safety from Libya.
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.
Italian government launches Operation Mare NostrumMare Nostrum - Wikipedia
A boat carrying migrants and refugees shipwrecks off Lampedusa, Italy, with the loss of at least 360 people
Frontex, the EU's border security agency, launches Operation TritonOperation Triton - Wikipedia
MSF launches the Phoenix, operated in partnership with MOASMSF launches Pheonix with MOAS
MSF launches the Dignity I and the Bourbon ArgosMSF launches third boat, Dignity I
The EU launches Operation SophiaOperation Sophia - Wikipedia
The Italian Coastguard refuses permission for the Bourbon Argos to dock in Sicilian ports due to lack of reception capacityBourbon Argos not authorised to land 700 rescued migrants in Sicily
Operations on the Phoenix endMSF will no longer provide emergency medical assistance on the MY Phoenix
MSF joins operations on board the Aquarius with SOS MEDITERRANEE
Operations on the Dignity I and the Bourbon Argos end
MSF launches the Prudence
The Italian government introduces the Search and Rescue Code of Conduct, which we refuse to signMSF committed to saving lives on Mediterranean but will not sign the Italian “Code of Conduct”
Operations on the Prudence endMSF ends mission of search and rescue boat Prudence
The first rescue standoff occurs when the Aquarius, and her 630 passengers, is denied a port of entry.MSF urges immediate disembarkation of 629 people on board Aquarius
The Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre is created and Tripoli's SAR zone is extended to 80 nautical miles
Gibraltar strips the Aquarius of its flag and registration. It gets a new flag from Panama
After political pressure from Italy, Panama also strips the Aquarius of its flag, leaving it stranded in Marseille, FranceItalian government pressures Panama to stop Aquarius rescues
Italy requests the seizure of the Aquarius, based on spurious waste management claimsSinister attacks by Italian authorities on lifesaving search and rescue
With no flag or registration, Aquarius is forced to end its mission and all MSF search and rescue operations temporarily endsAquarius forced to end operations as Europe condemns people to drown
The EU suspends Operation Sophia patrols
MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE announce the resumption of search and rescue operations with a new boat, the Ocean VikingMSF resumes search and rescue amid deteriorating conditions in Libya
After being stranded at sea for 2 weeks with 356 people on board, Ocean Viking is finally offered a port of safety
Ocean Viking is arbitrarily detained by Italian authorities over COVID-19 fears
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, MSF and SOS MEDITERRANNEE end their partnership over disagreement on strategy
MSF and Sea-Watch announce collaboration to save lives at sea
Sea-Watch 4 is allocated a port of safety 11 days after first rescue
Following an 11-hour inspection by Italian port authorities, Sea-Watch 4 is detained in the port of Palermo, Sicily, Italy
while the Sea-Watch 4 is still detained in port, MSF’s agreement with Sea-Watch comes to an end, along with our work on Sea-Watch 4.
13 May 2021
MSF charters our own boat, Geo Barents, and returns to search and rescue in the central Mediterranean Sea.MSF returns to saving lives at sea
14 Jul 2021
Having returned to port in Sicily after a series of rescues, the Geo Barents is detained by Italian authoritiesRead more
26 Jul 2021
After 24 days of detention in Augusta Port, Italy, the Geo Barents was formally released from administrative detention
19 Oct 2022
MSF and other SAR groups denounce the actions of Malta, which 3 weeks earlier ordered a ship to take rescued people to Egypt, rather than closer ports in Europe.Read more
03 Jan 2023
Italy issues a decree requiring ships to immediately head to port after each rescue, compelling them to ignore any other distress calls at sea.Read more
Criminalisation of lifesaving search and rescue
During our Search and Rescue operations, MSF has been shot at by the European-funded Libyan coast guard and repeatedly accused of collusion with traffickers.
Since 2018, our search and rescue operations had encountered ever-larger obstacles, in an increasingly hostile environment, amid intense political pressure. In June 2018, 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 same year, 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 2018, 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.
In 2019, the situation – both in Libya and politically in Europe – deteriorated. Tripoli plunged into conflict, where detention centres have been surrounded by fighting and hit by airstrikes. In the space of a year to July 2019, there were 21 rescue stand-offs, affecting over 2,600 vulnerable men, women and children.
Ad-hoc allocation of ports of safety, with often long delays before requests for a safe port are granted, continue today.
In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities in Italy would find flimsy excuses to detain search and rescue vessels, leaving almost no search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean and endangering lives. In September 2020, the Sea-Watch 4 was detained and impounded by Italian authorities for a period of six months, at a moment when six other search and rescue vessels were likewise detained.
On 26 July, 2021, after 24 days of detention in Augusta Port, Italy, the Geo Barents was formally released from administrative detention, returning to the Search and Rescue zone to continue saving lives at sea and to continue alerting on this humanitarian catastrophe in the central Mediterranean.
In 2023, chaos continues in Libya, with conflict and political and economic crises having worsened the situation. People are still desperately trying to flee.
Over the past five years, we have operated, or been partners on, eight ships:
- Phoenix, in partnership with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS);
- Dignity I;
- Bourbon Argos;
- Aquarius, in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE;
- Ocean Viking, in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE;
- Sea-Watch 4, in partnership with Sea-Watch; and
- Geo Barents.
Our medical teams on board treat violence-related injuries resulting from time in detention, torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence.
Women, especially pregnant women, receive dedicated care thanks to the presence of a midwife. Our midwives have assisted the delivery of several babies onboard our boats.
We also provide 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 is provided by trained cultural mediators.
During these consultations our teams often hear horrific stories; many of the people we rescue are victims of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
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 Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, and Serbia our teams are providing a range of services to people recently arrived in Europe, including medical and psychological support.
We also provide shelter, water, sanitation and essential relief items at reception centres, informal settlements and transit camps.
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 ran specialised centres to respond to the needs of survivors of torture in Athens, Greece, most of whom came across the seas seeking safety and protection in Europe.