Hindrance of Humanitarian Assistance Will Create a Deadly Gap in the Mediterranean Sea

GREECE 2018 © Robin Hammond/Witness Change

NEW YORK/BRUSSELS, AUGUST 12, 2017—Libyan authorities have announced the establishment of a search and rescue (SAR) zone and restricted access to humanitarian vessels in international waters off the Libyan coast. Immediately after the announcement yesterday, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome warned Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) about security risks associated with threats publicly issued by the Libyan Coast Guard against humanitarian SAR vessels operating in international waters.

Following these additional restrictions on independent humanitarian assistance and an increasing blockade trapping migrants within Libya, MSF has decided to temporarily suspend the SAR activity of its ship, Prudence. The MSF medical support team will continue to assist the rescue capacity of the Aquarius vessel, run by SOS Méditerranée, which is currently patrolling in international waters.

"If these declarations are confirmed and the orders are implemented, we see two grave consequences—there will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya,” said Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager. “If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, there will be fewer ships in the area to rescue people from drowning. Those who will not drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya, which we know is a place of lawlessness, arbitrary detention, and extreme violence.”

These declarations come barely a week after the deployment of the Italian Navy inside Libyan waters to help the Libyan coastguard intercept migrants and refugees and send them back to Libya.

"The recent developments represent another worrying element of an increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving rescue operations,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s director of operations. “European states and Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. This is an unacceptable assault on people’s lives and dignity.”

MSF requests Libyan authorities to rapidly confirm that they will adhere to and respect the internationally recognized legal obligation to rescue boats in distress, and that they will allow rescue operations to take place in international and Libyan waters. MSF further requests that Libyan authorities clarify that all boats, operated by non-governmental organizations or anyone else, will be permitted to conduct these rescue activities unhindered and unharmed, and that Libyan and Italian authorities will not interfere with the legally guaranteed right to disembark people in a place of safety.

“MSF refuses to be coopted into a system that aims at all costs to block people from seeking safety,” said de le Vingne. “We call on the European Union and Italian authorities to stop implementing deadly containment strategies that trap people in a country at war with no regard for their protection and assistance needs. Safe and legal pathways for refugees and migrants are urgently needed in order to reduce unnecessary death and suffering."