Continued detention of Geo Barents search and rescue ship endangers lives at sea

MSF SAR mission 2021 I R2 I Preparation

Italy 2021 © Vincent Haiges/MSF

The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today officially requested the release of its ship, the Geo Barents, from administrative detention in the post of Augusta, Italy, so it can urgently resume lifesaving search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean Sea. MSF has addressed all 22 deficiencies identified by the Italian Maritime Authority during its 14-hour inspection of the vessel on July 2.

Frauke Ossig, MSF’s representative for search and rescue, gave the following statement:

Today MSF officially requested the Italian authorities release its fully equipped and certified search and rescue ship, the Geo Barents, with no further delay. While MSF fully supports all legitimate maritime procedures and controls that ensure the safety of navigation at sea, MSF challenges the legitimacy of the detention of the Geo Barents.

We dispute the Italian authorities’ statement regarding the ship’s unsuitability to carry out systematic search and rescue activities and allegation that the ship had too many people on board. International law does not stipulate specific international classification for humanitarian rescue ships. Such an interpretation of maritime law disregards the fact that rescue operations, as per the duty of shipmasters to provide assistance to people in distress at sea, are considered force majeure situations—as per Article IV of the SOLAS Convention—thus, the number of people on board should not be taken into account for the purpose of ascertaining the compliance with other provisions of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

While humanitarian rescue nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are filling the deadly void left by states’ disengagement from their responsibility to provide dedicated search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean, it is unacceptable that NGOs are prevented from saving lives.

The death toll is increasing by the day and lives continue to be needlessly lost in the Mediterranean. The administrative detention of the Geo Barents is costing lives and wasting crucial resources that would allow us to keep saving people in distress right now.

Since the beginning of 2021, at least 820 people have been confirmed dead or missing attempting to cross the world’s deadliest sea border in the Central Mediterranean, including dozens of deaths in two shipwrecks reported this week.