Mediterranean: "They Would Rather Drown Seeking Safety Than Stay in Their Homelands"

Anna Surinyach/MSF

Over the past 100 days, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has contributed significant resources to saving lives on the Mediterranean Sea, rescuing 11,482 people at risk of drowning through its search and rescue operations onboard the ships Bourbon Argos, Dignity I and MY Phoenix (the latter operated in partnership with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station [MOAS]).

Since operations began on May 2, MSF has encountered many boats dangerously close to sinking, and lives have only been saved because rescue boats were in the right place at the right time.

MSF’s rescue data shows that almost all rescues occur in two main areas off the Libyan coast, near Tripoli and Zuwara. The search and rescue vessels operated by MSF and MOAS focus their entire attention on patrolling these waters proactively, with the sole mission of rescuing people from boats in distress.

This is not the case for many other vessels involved in search and rescue efforts, which have other mandates to fulfill and are not stationed in this area unless specifically called upon for an operation by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC). In 2014, commercial vessels carried out 40 percent of all rescues, but recent attacks on commercial ships off the Libyan coast have made captains reluctant to enter the area for security reasons.

A Need for Dedicated Search and Rescue

“Increasingly, we see that we are required to carry out multiple rescues from multiple boats within a matter of hours," says Lindis Hurum, MSF emergency coordinator on board the Bourbon Argos. “Our teams have also encountered boats with people who had already died from dehydration or asphyxiation during the journey. To me this suggests that despite the [European Union] response supposedly being ‘bigger and better’ than last year, there are not enough boats available and in the right spot to adequately respond to the needs of those crossing the Mediterranean.”

“People drown in seconds,” adds Will Turner, MSF emergency coordinator on board the MY Phoenix. “In order to save the most lives, boats need to be focused solely on search and rescue, and be stationed as close to the North African coast as possible. It’s not enough to be waiting for a call in the waters between Sicily and Malta; search and rescue must be done proactively.”

Safe and Legal Ways to Reach Europe are Essential

The people that MSF has rescued are from Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, Bangladesh, Sudan, Gambia, and other countries. Most are fleeing wars and oppressive regimes or seeking a better life in Europe. MSF medics have treated them for a range of conditions, from minor injuries and ailments to serious conditions such as gunshot wounds, engine oil and fuel burns, and organ failure.

“Search and rescue operations save many lives, but no matter how many rescue boats operate in the Mediterranean Sea, crossing in an overloaded wooden fishing boat or inflatable dinghy will never be safe,” says Hurum. “To stop the needless deaths, the European Union needs to create safe and legal ways for people to reach Europe so that they don’t need to get in these boats in the first place.”

“When I ask people why they risk their lives in this way, I get the same answer every time,” says Turner. “There is no alternative. These people know the dangers, but they take the gamble anyway. They tell us that they would rather drown seeking safety and freedom than stay in their homelands or in Libya, where their lives are not worth living.”

“When the situation in Libya worsened, I decided to take my family to Europe, but without documents it was impossible to leave,” says Zachariah, an elderly Palestinian man displaced for the third time in his life, this time by insecurity in Libya. “We have all come this way because we have no other option.”

August is expected to be the busiest month on the Mediterranean, as calm seas and warm weather make for the best conditions for crossing. “For many people in Europe, August is holiday season, a month of well-deserved time off,” says Paula Farias, MSF emergency coordinator on board the Dignity I. “But for many people around the world, it's another month of fleeing war, deprivation, danger, hunger, and oppression. Nobody risks their life on the Mediterranean for a bigger TV screen."

MSF will continue search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean in the coming months, working to best support those making the dangerous journey across the sea.

Learn More About MSF's Work in the Mediterranean

Before starting the rescue, and to avoid incidents, MSF distributes lifejackets. People board on the MSF speedboat and then are taken to the mother ship, Dignity I.
Anna Surinyach/MSF