MSF relaunches search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean

At least 555 people have died this year attempting the deadly sea crossing from Libya

MSF Geo Barents ready to sail

Norway 2021 © MSF/Avra Fialas

AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK MAY 13, 2021—Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has relaunched its search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean to save the lives of refugees and migrants attempting the deadly sea crossing from Libya to Europe, the international medical humanitarian organization announced today. MSF is chartering its own ship, the Geo Barents, to rescue people in danger and provide them with emergency medical care.

“Our return to sea is the direct result of Europe’s reckless policies of non-assistance at sea which are condemning people to die,” said Ellen van der Velden, MSF’s operations manager for search and rescue. “Over the years, European governments have progressively disengaged from proactive search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean, have failed to assist people in danger, and have deliberately hindered, if not criminalized, the much-needed work of search and rescue nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These policies have abandoned thousands of men, women, and children to drift at sea and to drown on Europe’s southern border.”

Since 2015, MSF medical teams working on search and rescue ships have witnessed with horror the human tragedy unfolding on Europe’s doorstep as thousands of people drown at sea or are forcibly returned to horrific conditions in Libya. As of May 13, 2021, approximately 13,000 people have fled Libya and crossed the Central Mediterranean. At least 555 people died or went missing in the attempt. One of the most recent incidents was a shipwreck on April 22 that claimed at least 130 lives.

Those who do not die at sea risk being intercepted off the Libyan coast by the Libyan coastguard and forcibly returned to Libya. The European Union (EU) provides funding, training, and other support to the Libyan Coast Guard. This year, more than 7,000 refugees and migrants have been intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan coastguard. Most people intercepted are then arbitrarily locked up in dangerous detention centers where they are exposed to life-threatening risks such as ill-treatment, sexual violence, exploitation, and even death.

Since launching search and rescue activities in 2015, MSF has deployed medical teams on board seven rescue ships, at times operating the vessels in partnership with other organizations. In total, MSF teams have participated in 682 search and rescue operations and assisted more than 81,000 people.

MSF has undertaken the necessary modifications to ensure the Geo Barents is compliant for search and rescue purposes. On board there is a clinic, a midwife’s room, and an observation room for all the medical activities that the MSF teams will undertake. The ship has two fast rescue boats—rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs)—to launch during rescue activities.

MSF calls for an end to the EU’s support to the Libyan coastguard and to people being forcibly returned to Libya. “We will not stay silent in the face of this manmade disaster,” says van der Velden. “EU support to the business of suffering should stop immediately. European member states must ensure that a dedicated proactive state-led search and rescue mechanism is urgently relaunched in the Central Mediterranean.”