MSF search and rescue ship detained in Italy

The detention comes after the Libyan Coast Guard threatened MSF and attempted to obstruct a rescue in the Mediterranean Sea

Detention Geo Barents

Geo Barents has been issued a detention order for 20 days by the Italian authorities. MSF strongly denies the allegations in the detention order. | Italy 2024 © MSF/Stefan Pejovic

ROME/NEW YORK, March 22, 2024Geo Barents, the search and rescue ship operated by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has been issued a detention order for 20 days by Italian authorities. MSF strongly denies Italy's allegations that it failed to comply with instructions issued by the Libyan Coast Guard and endangered the lives of survivors during a rescue operation in the central Mediterranean Sea on March 16. 

MSF denounces the imposition of sanctions on its ship and Italy’s systematic collusion with the Libyan Coast Guard to prevent people from seeking safety and protection in Europe at all costs.

“Italy’s actions are outrageous,” says Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative. “The very authorities we are accused of disobeying—the Italy-supported Libyan Coast Guard—were the ones who endangered people’s lives that day. Yet, we are the ones sanctioned simply for fulfilling our legal duty to save lives at sea.”

Libyan Coast Guard endangers lives

On March 16, an MSF team went to rescue 146 people in distress aboard a wooden boat in international waters. In the middle of the rescue, a Libyan Coast Guard patrol vessel—donated to Libya by the Italian government in 2023—arrived at the scene and attempted to stop the rescue. Members of the Libyan Coast Guard tried to forcibly board one of MSF’s rescue boats and aggressively threatened survivors and MSF staff with arrest and forcible removal to Libya. 

For over two hours, the Libyan patrol vessel performed dangerous maneuvers in an attempt to block the ongoing rescue, risking the lives of dozens of people, including MSF staff. 

“This detention is the latest example of the hypocrisy of the European Union (EU) and its member states, who are doing everything in their power to punish those involved in search and rescue activities, while being themselves complicit in the violent pushbacks of thousands of people to Libya every year,” says Gil. "Time and time again the Italian authorities request us to coordinate rescues with the Libyan Coast Guard, despite knowing full well that Libya is not a place of safety for refugees and migrants and that returning people in distress at sea to Libya is a crime."

This behavior is a dirty political tactic to prevent people arriving on European shores at all costs.

Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative

NGO vessels arbitrarily detained 

The detention of Geo Barents marks the 20th time that a humanitarian search and rescue ship has been detained since the enforcement of a new Italian law in early 2023 that intentionally targets and obstructs the lifesaving search and rescue activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at sea. As well as violating international and European laws, the Italian Law 15/2023—also known as Piantedosi Decree—has strained the already insufficient search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean Sea, making one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes even more deadly. 

EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard obstruct MSF rescue operation

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“In recent years, NGOs have been harassed and criminalized by European governments, including Italy,” says Gil. “This behavior is a dirty political tactic to prevent people arriving on European shores at all costs. Geo Barents always operates in accordance with international maritime law. We have appealed this unjust and ultimately dangerous detention in court. Once again, it is the people attempting to flee Libya who pay the [ultimate] price, as yet another search and rescue ship is stopped from saving lives at sea.” 

MSF calls on the Italian authorities to immediately stop obstructing lifesaving NGO assistance at sea and calls on the EU and its member states to halt all material and financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard and authorities who have a track record of human rights violations.


On March 16 2024, MSF teams conducted three separate rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea. Following the first rescue of 28 people from a fiberglass boat, the MSF team started to rescue 146 people in distress from a wooden boat. During the rescue operation, the Libyan Coast Guard dangerously interfered and delayed the completion of the rescue for several hours. MSF was eventually able to complete the rescue. Later that night, MSF teams rescued 75 people from another fiberglass boat that had capsized and thrown about 45 people into the water. Thankfully, everyone was accounted for and eventually rescued. All 249 survivors, including a large number of children, disembarked the Geo Barents on March 20 in northern Italy.

MSF has been active in search and rescue activities since 2015, working on eight different rescue vessels, independently or in partnership with other NGOs, rescuing more than 91,000 people. Since launching search and rescue operations on board Geo Barents in May 2021, MSF teams have rescued more than 11,300 people, recovered the bodies of 13 people, and assisted in the delivery of one baby.