Beginning on the morning of May 9, a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team on board the Geo Barents rescued 470 people from seven boats in distress within 72 hours in the Libyan and Maltese search and rescue zones in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The Italian authorities—also responsible for search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean—have not granted MSF permission to disembark the survivors to a place of safety despite six requests.
“It’s incomprehensible that after all these years of deadly migration journeys in the Mediterranean, private organizations like [MSF] are taking on the major burden of saving lives at sea,” said Juan Matias Gil, MSF’s head of mission for search and rescue. “At least 24,000 people have officially drowned or gone missing since 2014, yet Europe is still turning a blind eye to what is happening at its southern borders.”
Over the course of three intense days, the boats in distress were spotted from the bridge of Geo Barents after the team received alerts from Alarm Phone—the Mediterranean monitoring organization—and was supported by Pilotes Volontaires—a French-based non-profit organization providing aerial observation in the central Mediterranean. None of the boats were identified by the relevant maritime rescue coordination centers.
Early on the morning of May 9, MSF’s team spotted two rubber boats in distress carrying a total of 204 people. Among them was a nine-month-old boy named Mohammed who was carefully pulled from the crowd with his mother by members of the MSF team and brought to safety on deck. All survivors on the rubber boats were soon transferred to Geo Barents.
About 24 hours later, on May 10, MSF received an alert about another overcrowded rubber boat, this time with 59 people on board. Geo Barents headed to its location with the guidance of a Pilotes Volontaires’ airplane and carried out the rescue.
Later that day, MSF received two new email alerts from Alarm Phone, indicating that two more boats were in distress nearby. The rescue speedboats on Geo Barents were launched at around 9 p.m. and, after searching for five hours in darkness, the team finally found the two boats drifting near an oil platform. The 111 survivors on board these vessels were rescued and transferred onto Geo Barents at around 2 a.m. It was the longest rescue since the beginning of the ship’s operation.
On May 11, alerts from Alarm Phone indicated that more boats were in distress, this time in international waters under the search and rescue responsibility of Malta. Again, with the help of Pilotes Volontaires, Geo Barents navigated to the exact location of the first boat, where the MSF team found 67 people drifting in a wooden vessel, looking terrified, exhausted, and disoriented. Several hours later, all survivors were brought on board the MSF rescue ship.
“When the rescuers came, I was almost unconscious,” said a 26-year-old woman from Syria. “I couldn’t understand what was happening. By that time, we were at least 48 hours at sea. I was sure I would die.”
The long day of rescues continued with another boat carrying 29 people, which was drifting in the Maltese search and rescue zone. Once again, no action was taken by the Maltese authorities.
“We were again appalled by the inaction of the Maltese and Italian authorities while almost 100 lives were hanging in the balance,” said Gill. “The Maltese armed forces—who are primarily responsible for rescues in the Maltese search and rescue zone—were informed at the same time as MSF, but they remained silent and inactive, neglecting their legal obligation to provide or coordinate assistance. They also ignored our request for a port of safety.”
Most of the survivors on board Geo Barents have experienced physical abuse of various forms, including sexual violence and forced labor. Four people embarked on their journey across the Mediterranean with fractured bones, the result of injuries inflicted during their time in Libya.
One survivor currently on Geo Barents has diabetes and is dependent on insulin but has been without his vital medication likely for weeks. Two other survivors have suffered psychotic episodes on board. All 470 survivors on Geo Barents are either physically or mentally vulnerable and need to disembark to a place of safety as soon as possible.