The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is requesting a place of safety to disembark 111 survivors—including 52 minors, the youngest of whom is four months old—on board the Geo Barents who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea on March 5 and 6.
Malta and Italy have denied MSF’s requests for a place of safety to disembark, despite MSF informing the authorities about the vulnerable condition and medical needs of many people on board. Approximately 45 percent of the minors are traveling alone (many report having family in Europe with whom they are attempting to reunite), there are two pregnant women on board, and one woman with a severe traumatic injury to her right leg who needs specialist care.
Many of the people on board have symptoms of severe psychological distress such as flashbacks and generalized distress, anxious overthinking, and sleeping problems resulting from the trauma they experienced in Libya. MSF’s teams on board are doing their best to provide medical and psychological support to all survivors, but they need to be urgently disembarked in a place of safety to receive further assistance.
Many of the survivors recount that they have attempted the sea-crossing multiple times only to be intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard and taken to detention centers where they experienced extreme violence, including sexual abuse and ill-treatment.
Taken back to Libya
On February 20, the Geo Barents departed the Sicilian coast for the search and rescue zone. For several days, the rough weather in the Mediterranean Sea discouraged most departures from the Libyan and Tunisian coasts. The first alert of a boat in distress arrived in the very early hours of February 26. After a search overnight, the ship arrived close to the last known position only to find an empty rubber boat. The 105 people reported to be on board were most likely intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned back to Libya.
Another alert was received from Alarm Phone—a service to support people in danger at sea—early on March 5. Fortunately, the weather conditions were good. The Geo Barents immediately changed course and spotted an overcrowded rubber boat drifting with 80 people on board. After nearly ten hours at sea, all the survivors—who said they left the Libyan coast the night before—were rescued and safely brought aboard the Geo Barents. After spending so many hours sitting in sea water mixed with fuel, seven people were treated for fuel burns.
“The most difficult rescue”
A second rescue took place on the night of March 6 during strong winds and waves. After six hours of searching for the boat, the Geo Barents finally reached a very unstable fiberglass boat in distress with 31 terrified people on board.
"It was the most difficult rescue I've ever done since I started doing search and rescue in 2017," said Javier Filgueira Guimerá, one of MSF’s search and rescue technicians. “The boat was already taking on water when we found it at 12 a.m. in the dark. While we were still bringing people onto our fast rescue boats, the fiberglass boat capsized. They were all thrown into the cold water, including a pregnant woman. It was a life-or-death situation, but we were able to rescue all 31 people."
All survivors were brought to safety onto the Geo Barents, many suffering from fuel intoxication and symptoms of hypothermia.
“We spent almost thirty hours at sea,” said Aman*, a survivor of the shipwreck from Eritrea. “We were stressed, scared, people got sick, we had a pregnant woman and we didn’t know what to do. The boat flipped and people began to drown. It was scary."
"This time, we were able to rescue everyone on that sinking boat, but what if we had arrived a few hours later?” said Caroline Willemen, MSF’s project coordinator on the Geo Barents. “Another silent tragedy would have occurred at sea, and more lives would have been lost as a result of European governments' withdrawal from search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean. While European member states invest in deterrence policies and border militarization, people are left to drown at sea.”
*Name has been changed.
Since launching search and rescue activities in 2015, MSF has sent medical teams on board eight ships, at times in partnership with other organizations. MSF teams have helped to rescued more than 82,000 people. The Geo Barents is currently MSF’s sole search and rescue ship, which launched operations in May 2021. The vessel is currently on its eighth rotation.