MSF Ships Rescue Nearly 2,000 People in One Day on the Mediterranean

Today, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) search and rescue teams on board the ships Bourbon Argos, Dignity I, and Aquarius (which is run in partnership with the humanitarian organization SOS MEDITERRANEE) rescued nearly 2,000 men, women, and children from 11 separate boats in less than seven hours on the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the rescues were conducted under dramatic circumstances, with some patients requiring evacuation to the Italian mainland. Tragically, one young pregnant woman died after being rescued by the Dignity I and before it was possible to transfer her to land.  

“When we arrived to our second rescue this morning, people were in the water and some were close to drowning,” said Nicolas Papachrysostomou, MSF’s field coordinator on Dignity I. “It was a horrific sight. People were frightened and many of them were suffering from fuel burns, particularly women and children. Devastatingly, as we were heading to the medevac [with] our critical patients, a pregnant woman died. It is just unacceptable that in 2016, these people are left with no other choice than making this dramatic and deadly journey.”  

Today’s intense rescues come just after the Bourbon Argos returned to operation, having been on standby since August 17, when it was involved in an incident with the Libyan Coastguard. Today the 60-meter vessel engaged in eight separate rescues, taking on board a total of 1,019 people. At the same time, the Aquarius was involved in the painstaking rescue of a staggering 720 people from one very overcrowded wooden boat. Another 213 people were rescued by the Dignity I. Those on board both the Bourbon Argos and the Aquarius are stable, but MSF medical teams are treating many people suffering from non-life threatening illnesses. The Aquarius team observed a worrisome nutritional status among the people rescued, who are primarily Eritrean.

“In the absence of safe and legal alternatives to dangerous boat journeys, people continue to die in the hundreds in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Tommaso Fabbri, MSF head of mission in Italy. “Although search and rescue operations continue to be an insufficient answer to this tragedy, today shows just how needed humanitarian and independent organizations like our own are on the central Mediterranean.  But let’s be clear, search and rescue is not enough—people urgently need safe and legal routes to reach Europe. It’s the only way to stop deaths at sea.”

Since April 21, when MSF’s search and rescue operations began for 2016, the Dignity I, Bourbon Argos, and Aquarius have rescued a total of 14,547 people in more than 100 different rescue operations. At least 3,230 more people have died in what has become the most deadly migratory route in the world. MSF continues to stress that although search and rescue is lifesaving and essential, the only way to truly stop deaths at sea is to provide safe and legal alternatives to dangerous sea crossings. 

Jens Pagotto, Head of Mission for MSF’s Search and Rescue mission helping to bring people on board the Aquarius on May 24th 2016. On this day 388 people were brought onto the Aquarius after teams rescued 132 from a  rubber dinghy and 256 people were transferred from an oilrig tug boat. They had all left the Libyan coast in the early hours of the morning and included 25 children under the age of five.
Alva White/MSF