Libya + 3 more

Left to drown in the southern European border: one year of Geo Barents at sea



In May 2021, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) relaunched search and rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean, chartering our own ship, the Geo Barents, to save lives, provide emergency medical care to rescued people, as well as make survivors’ voices heard from the world’s deadliest sea border. Our vessel is fully equipped for rescue operations, and our activities are carried out by our specifically trained staff including a search and rescue team, a medical team (including mental health), and a humanitarian affairs officer and cultural mediators who ensure identification of protection needs.

Between June 2021 and May 2022, the Geo Barents sailed out 11 times and conducted 47 rescue operations to assist people in overcrowded, and unseaworthy boats, some of which were already taking on water. No instructions or assistance were provided by European coastal states during these rescues. MSF rescued a total of 3,138 people and conducted 6,536 medical consultations for primary healthcare, sexual and reproductive healthcare and mental health support on board. The vast majority of rescued people had fled Libya. Many of them reported having survived violence, torture and/or ill treatment.

MSF teams were also made aware of, and/or witnessed, several interceptions and forced returns to Libya: evidence of the systematic abstention of the Italian and Maltese authorities from conducting and coordinating rescues of boats in distress resulting in forcible returns of people to Libya via proxies, in contravention of search and rescue obligations under international law.

During the reporting period, 94 per cent of the boats in distress from which people were rescued were spotted directly from the bridge of the Geo Barents or following distress alerts relayed by civil society rescue initiatives. Only six per cent of the alerts were relayed by a rescue coordination centre (RCC), private vessel or another aerial asset. Survivors reported being stranded at sea without rescue for up to 72 hours, often under extremely challenging weather conditions. MSF medical teams on board also treated morbidities directly related to the dangerous journey itself, and recovered the bodies of 10 people who had died during their journey on a wooden boat, most likely due to intoxication by fuel fumes on the wooden boat’s lower deck.

Since MSF’s return to the Central Mediterranean in June 2021, our teams have continued to bear witness to the normalisation of stand-offs at sea and the consequent exacerbation of human suffering. Throughout the 11 rescue missions conducted in the reporting time, our team submitted multiple requests to the Italian and Maltese authorities to designate a place of safety for survivors to disembark. Requests to the Maltese authorities were systematically ignored or denied; while those to the Italian authorities were met with increasing delay. Stand-offs at sea obstruct survivors’ timely access to full assessment of their medical and protection needs, and prolong the suffering of those identified as requiring urgent further care and protection.