Appeal lodged against illegitimate detention of MSF search and rescue ship

The Italian government is punishing organizations involved in search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean.

MSF Geo Barents ready to sail

Norway 2021 © MSF/Avra Fialas

ROME/NEW YORK, MARCH 7, 2022—An appeal has been lodged at the competent court against the detention of the search and rescue ship Geo Barents, said the international medical humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today. On February 23, the Ancona coastguard notified Geo Barents of the 20-day detention and a fine of up to €10,000 [about $10,500 US] for failing to provide the voyage data recorder (VDR) to authorities when the vessel arrived in the eastern Italian port city of Ancona on  February 17 to disembark people rescued at sea.

A VDR is similar to a flight data recorder—known as a “black box”—on an aircraft. The authorities’ request to save and share this data is completely inconsistent with usual practice. In the eight years that MSF has been engaged in search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean, the organization has never been asked to provide VDR data. As stated in the relevant maritime conventions and guidelines, the purpose of the VDR is to make the data available in case of maritime incident investigations. Since no such incident occurred on board Geo Barents, no data was specifically saved or downloaded.

Geo Barents [always] operates in compliance with the applicable regulations and has collaborated in absolute good faith with the authorities by providing all available data related to rescue operations, in fulfillment of its duties under international law,” said Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative. “We consider this sanction, based on the request for VDR data, out of the scope of maritime law and hence an illegitimate act to obstruct civilian efforts to save lives at sea.” 

The detention of Geo Barents is a direct consequence of the enforcement of Italy’s Decree Law 1/2023, just converted into Law 15/2023, which creates a series of bureaucratic burdens on search and rescue operations. It is the latest example of the Italian government deploying its administrative powers to punish organizations involved in search and rescue activities and to obstruct civilian efforts to rescue people in distress at sea. Since 2017, MSF and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have faced frequent harassment by the authorities—including prolonged inspections and detainment—with the aim of preventing their lifesaving activities at sea.

“The detention of Geo Barents is taking place against the backdrop of virtually no state-led search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean,” said Virginia Mielgo González, MSF project coordinator on board the Geo Barents. “States such as Malta and Italy consistently delay, or, in some cases, fail to provide assistance to boats in distress in their own search and rescue regions. Since the start of 2023, almost 10 people per day have lost their lives or have gone missing on the sea migration route between Libya and Italy. The latest measures by the Italian authorities directly target Geo Barents, but the real price will be paid by those fleeing across the central Mediterranean who will be left without assistance.”

MSF reiterates its call to the Italian Government to annul Law 15/2023 and to stop criminalizing humanitarian assistance for migrants and refugees. It calls on the European Commission, as guardian of the treaties, to urgently put the Law under scrutiny and to carry out an in-depth review of the broadly documented criminalization of search and rescue activities in Italy.

MSF calls on the EU member states—especially coastal states—to fulfill their legal obligation to coordinate and conduct rescues at sea and to establish a dedicated, proactive state-led European search and rescue mechanism