Central Mediterranean: Twenty-two people missing, and a pregnant woman died after tragic rescue

Mediterranean Sea 2022 © Anna Pantelia/MSF

NEW YORK/CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN, JUNE 28, 2022—At least 22 people are missing, and a pregnant woman died following the rescue of a sinking rubber boat in the central Mediterranean Sea on June 27, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) said today. MSF’s team rescued 71 people who are now safely on board the Geo Barents. MSF is urging the Maltese and Italian authorities to allocate a place of safety for the disembarkation of survivors as soon as possible. 

Yesterday, a boat in distress was intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard before the Geo Barents could provide assistance. Hours later, Alarm Phone1—a hotline support for people crossing the Mediterranean Sea—issued an alert for another boat in distress in the area. It took the Geo Barents three hours to reach the rubber boat, which had deflated and was sinking. Many people were already in the water.  

“What we faced yesterday was our worst nightmare coming true,” said Riccardo Gatti, MSF’s search and rescue team leader on board the Geo Barents “When we got closer to the boat in distress and we could see it with our binoculars, we understood how complicated this rescue would be. The boat was sinking with dozens of people trapped, while many were already in the water.”  

MSF’s team desperately tried to resuscitate a pregnant woman on board who sadly passed away despite their best efforts. Three others needed to receive emergency care, including a four-month-old baby. The baby and her mother were later evacuated to Malta. MSF’s team is looking after the remaining survivors on board, most of whom are extremely weak and in a state of shock.  

While the team is still collecting information on the people missing, two women have already told our teams that they had lost their children at sea—another young woman explained she had lost her younger brother. Information about more than a dozen additional missing people is being gathered through interviews with the grieving survivors. 

“The survivors are exhausted,” said Stephanie Hofstetter, MSF medical team leader on the Geo Barents. “Many have ingested large amounts of seawater and multiple people suffered from hypothermia after spending many hours in the water. At least 10 people . . . are suffering from medium to severe fuel burns and need further treatment beyond what can be delivered on board.”  

“This traumatic event is a deadly consequence of the growing inaction and disengagement of European states, including Italy and Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Juan Matias Gil, MSF’s search and rescue representative. “Tragedies at sea continue to cost thousands of lives, and these people are being lost on Europe’s doorstep in absolute silence and indifference on the part of EU [European Union] states.”  

“Search and rescue organizations cannot fill this huge void alone,” said Gil. “We do not have such capacity, and beyond that, this is the responsibility of governments. What happened yesterday showed that, alone, we cannot do enough. Where are the states?”  

Today, the Mediterranean Sea remains the deadliest border in the world, with 24,184 missing migrants recorded since 2014 2 and 721 in 2022 alone. EU member states and states that border the Mediterranean Sea are condemning people to drown under policies of non-assistance. MSF demands that all EU member states ensure a state-led, dedicated, and proactive search and rescue capacity is provided in the central Mediterranean Sea, and that they provide a fast and adequate response to all distress calls. 

“We were in the sea for 19 hours before we were rescued,” said a man from Cameroon who was rescued last night and is now safe on board. “All these hours, I saw many people drowning. I am happy that I was saved but it comes with a lot of tears.” 

The Geo Barents is now heading to Italy and has reached out to the Maltese and Italian authorities for a place of safety. MSF asks for a timely and safe disembarkation of survivors as soon as possible to avoid increasing survivors’ distress and worsening their mental health.   

MSF has been running SAR activities in the Central Mediterranean since 2015, working on eight different SAR vessels (alone or in partnership with other NGOs). MSF search and rescue teams in the Central Mediterranean have assisted more than 85,000 people. Geo Barents is MSF’s current chartered search and rescue vessel.  

Between June 2021 and May 2022, the ship has conducted 47 rescue operations, rescuing 3,138 people and recovering the bodies of a further 10 people who had died in the sea. MSF teams on board have conducted 6,536 medical consultations for primary health care, sexual and reproductive health, and mental health.   

Thirty-four percent of the survivors rescued were children, out of whom 89 percent were unaccompanied or were separated from their families. Two-hundred and sixty-five people reported having suffered some form of violence, torture, or ill treatment, and 63 people among them reported having suffered sexual and other forms of gender-based violence. 

Our teams also recorded 620 incidents of violence perpetrated against or witnessed by people rescued, including physical assault, torture, forced disappearance, kidnapping, arbitrary arrest and detention— mainly in Libya but also during their often-multiple interceptions and forced returns by the Libyan coastguard.