Saving lives is not a crime

Tommaso Fabbri, MSF’s former head of mission for search and rescue, on a legal case dismissed after seven years in limbo.

An MSF search and rescue staff member approaches a boat in distress in the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean Sea 2023 © Skye McKee/MSF

After a two-year preliminary hearing, a judge in Italy has closed a case against NGOs conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, including Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), citing the baselessness of the accusations and erasing any suspicion of collaboration with smugglers. Read more about the case.
By Tommaso Fabbri, former head of mission for MSF search and rescue operations and involved in the case 

I recall that night vividly. We were in the middle of the Mediterranean. Nothing was visible. The sky and the sea formed one black canvas. And then, amidst the darkness, we saw them: about 100 people, perilously crammed onto a rubber boat meant for no more than 20, with some already swept overboard, clinging to the sides. Behind them another boat emerged, and then another. 

That was in 2016, when I was part of a medical humanitarian team aboard an MSF search and rescue vessel. We had received a distress call from the Italian Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre instructing us to assist several boats. By 11 a.m. the next morning, MSF had rescued more than 1,100 people. 

I can still clearly remember the experience: the sense of anticipation as we searched for the drifting boats, the team’s surge of adrenaline during the rescue, everyone jumping into action as we swiftly lifted people aboard, reflexively assessing their state of health and treating medical needs. After each rescue we would speak with the people on board, listening to their stories of survival: the horrors endured in Libya, the terror of their escape on unseaworthy boats, and the glimmer of hope of reaching a place where life can only be better. 

I’ve been serving as a humanitarian worker since 2005, starting with MSF as a pharmacist before taking on various roles, including country director for emergencies around the world. 

When I looked around the deck filled with 1,100 people—some suffering from dehydration, fuel burns, and scars from torture, yet all relieved to be rescued and to be alive—I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. 

Migrants rescued from a boat in distress in the Mediterranean disembark.
Survivors rescued by MSF teams disembark safely in Ravenna, the designated place of safety assigned by the Italian authorities. Mediterranean Sea 2023 © Mohamad Cheblak/MSF

The police search begins 

Fast forward to 2021, the second harrowing year of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was managing COVID treatment programs for vulnerable older people when I received an unexpected call.

The police were searching for me. 

It felt like the world had turned upside down. I was under investigation for my involvement in search and rescue operations, specifically aboard MSF’s ship Vos Prudence in 2017. At that time, the Italian government, political parties, and institutional representatives had been unjustly accusing search and rescue NGOs of aiding and abetting illegal immigration in the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, I had never imagined that I would be accused personally, simply for doing my job.

However, I soon learned that I was not alone. The case brought by the Italian authorities implicated people from two other NGOs as well. If found guilty, each of us could face up to 20 years in prison. Despite the threat, I tried to stay calm. I was not worried about my personal reputation or that of MSF, as I was confident that we had always worked with a commitment to transparency and coordinated our activities with the Italian Coast Guard, military police, and the authorities.

My concern about the broader implications of the case has been harder to shake off: the potential impact on ongoing search and rescue operations, and more importantly, what it would mean for people in need of safety and protection.

However, my concern about the broader implications of the case has been harder to shake off: the potential impact on ongoing search and rescue operations, and more importantly, what it would mean for people in need of safety and protection. 

I followed the developments even when I was working on other projects. Italy and the EU made deals with other countries designed to prevent people ever reaching European territory. For example, they supported Libya in restricting vessels 70 miles off the Libyan coast. This shift left unseaworthy rubber boats drifting because they ran out of fuel. If people are rescued, our teams report that they are in worse physical condition due to a lack of food and water supplies and overexposure to weather conditions. The humanitarian imperative of saving lives was crushed under the attempt to stem migration at any cost. And this is still continuing now. 

Mohammed prays on Italian soil after disembarking in the port of Tarento. He had been rescued 10 days before from a rubber boat in distress by the Geo Barents.
Mohammed prays on Italian soil after disembarking at the port of Tarento. He had been rescued 10 days prior by the Geo Barents.
Mediterranean Sea 2023 © Sonsoles Galindo/MSF

Policies are still hindering search and rescue operations 

A recent Italian decree prohibits ships from rescuing survivors from more than one boat at a time, while disembarkations are assigned in faraway ports. Both are policies that keep search and rescue vessels away from where they are needed for extended periods of time. Meanwhile, aid workers and NGOs continue to face criminalization, with humanitarian search and rescue vessels regularly detained in Italian ports. Just last month, MSF’s ship, Geo Barents, was issued a 20-day detention order by Italian authorities after a rescue operation that a Libyan patrol boat had dangerously tried to hamper. 

I was unsure of what to expect from the case, but it began with a preliminary hearing to determine whether the Italian government possessed sufficient evidence for prosecution. The hearing took 40 sessions in court, stretching over two years. I testified at one of the sessions. 

Throughout the seven years, all of us involved in the case have borne the burden of accusations for simply carrying out our duties: rescuing people in distress at sea with transparency and compliance with the law.  

During these seven years in limbo, I continued to work as an aid worker with MSF in projects in India and Bolivia, and in COVID-19 projects in Italy, France, and Mexico. I just returned from an assignment as head of our Gaza operations last month. 

My fears were not unfounded; they were rooted in experience. Since 2017, MSF began noticing a shift in behavior from the Italian and European authorities regarding lives at risk at sea.

Today the case against me and the other aid workers was dismissed. However, during the seven years it took to reach this judgment, the Italian government has invested enormous resources in policies that have led to tragic consequences. They erected barrier after barrier to humanitarian action while failing to prevent shipwrecks and establish legal and safe routes for people fleeing through the Mediterranean. Tragically, in 2023, the International Organization for Migration reported that 3,105 people have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean. That’s more lives lost in the Mediterranean than in any other year since these allegations were first made. 

Despite the challenges posed by this case and the many other obstacles, MSF teams have not stopped doing search and rescue work in the Mediterranean. 

Saving lives is not a crime; it is a moral and legal obligation, a fundamental act of humanity. I hope that the outcome of this case sends a loud, clear message to any government: stop criminalizing solidarity!  

As aid workers we must persist in our work wherever it is needed: whether in conflict zones, epidemics, or in preventing unacceptable death and suffering in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Italy: Charges dropped against rescues at sea

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