Providing psychological support to shipwreck survivors in Italy

The boat reportedly crashed into rocks during bad weather, killing at least 64 people, including 12 children.

Survivors on the Geo Barents, rotation 13

Mediterranean Sea 2022 © Lorène Giorgis/MSF

CROTONE/NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 28, 2023—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing mental health support to survivors of a tragic shipwreck that occurred just off the coast of southern Italy on February 26, 2023. The wooden fishing boat—carrying between 150 to 200 people—reportedly crashed into rocks during bad weather less than 500 feet from the Italian coastal village of Steccato di Cutro, sending all passengers overboard and killing at least 64 people including 12 children. The body of one person was found miles away due to strong currents.

The boat, carrying asylum seekers predominantly from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, had left Turkey, officially renamed Türkiye, four or five days earlier. At least 20 survivors—including one person in need of intensive care—were hospitalized in a local public hospital. There are now about 60 survivors in the asylum seeker reception center in Crotone—a port city about 20 miles north of Steccato di Cutro—predominantly from Afghanistan.

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MSF teams have provided psychological support to approximately 60 people and will continue to assist in the next few days, as agreed with the Italian authorities. MSF’s staff have spoken to children who have lost their parents and family members. A 12-year-old boy lost his entire family. A 17-year-old child who was hospitalized lost his parents. Another boy told MSF he lost his 6-year-old brother to hypothermia about four hours after the shipwreck.

While most deaths at sea occur along the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy—where MSF operates the rescue vessel Geo Barents—MSF teams have recently observed an increase in the number of people making the dangerous crossing from Turkey to southern Italy.

On February 23, the Geo Barents was unfairly detained and fined by the Italian government. Even though this measure targets MSF, those fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution and attempting to seek safety in Europe by crossing the dangerous central Mediterranean, will be the victims. 

“This tragic shipwreck is a painful reminder that restrictive migration policies will not stop desperate people from fleeing,” said Sergio Di Dato, MSF’s project leader. “People will continue to risk their lives, as they often have no other option. The Italian and EU governments must stop criminalizing migration and humanitarian assistance. They must instead focus on providing adequate safe and legal channels to migrate and improved mechanisms to assist and protect people on the move.” 

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MSF teams, including psychologists and cultural mediators specifically trained to offer psychological first aid, provide care at disembarkation ports, hotspots, or reception centers in Italy. MSF primarily provides psychological first aid to relatives and friends of the victims of a shipwreck, with the objective to help address their trauma with mental health support. The team also offers basic services to all survivors, including facilitating access to medical treatment, providing information, and referring vulnerable people to the authorities.

In 2022, MSF Italy launched a project in Roccella Jonica, near Crotone, to provide medical and psychological support at disembarkation points, focusing on identifying people with medical vulnerabilities.

MSF has been active and engaged in search and rescue activities since 2015, working on eight different search and rescue vessels (alone or in partnership with other nongovernmental organizations). MSF has assisted in the rescue of more than 85,000 people. Since launching search and rescue operations on board the Geo Barents in May 2021, MSF has rescued 6,194 people (including 3,742 in 2022), recovered the bodies of 11 people who died at sea, and assisted in the delivery of one baby on board.