Search and rescue in the Mediterranean

Thousands of people risk this deadly sea crossing to seek safety

Aquarius, a search and rescue vessel run by MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE, rescued more than 500 people on November 1, 2017.
MEDITERRANEAN © Maud Veith/SOS Méditerranée
Click to hide Text

Since 2015, MSF search-and-rescue teams have rescued and assisted more than 80,000 vulnerable people along the deadly stretch of water between Libya and Italy—one of the few remaining routes to Europe as governments across the continent have closed their borders.

Despite the dangers, people continue to attempt the sea crossing to escape violence, instability, and economic hardship in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Nigeria. These men, women, and children are often crowded into flimsy boats or rafts, vulnerable to exploitation by human smugglers and profiteers.

Since 2015, at least 13,695 people have died while crossing the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration.

MSF began search and rescue activities to fill the gap left by the termination of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operations in 2015. We stepped up activities in 2016 as European states concentrated on deterrence and surveillance measures rather than on saving lives. That year, MSF announced that it would no longer accept funds from the European Union or its member states in opposition to their extraordinarily harmful migration policies.

European states’ policies of deterrence, as well their refusal to provide alternatives to the deadly sea crossing, continue to kill thousands. As humanitarians, we refuse to look on from the shore.
—Joanne Liu, MSF International President

On board specially equipped ships, MSF teams provide lifesaving emergency care as well as treatment for dehydration, hypothermia, and fuel burns. Our teams typically have less than three days to provide care for patients before they disembark in Italy. While the priorities are food, water, rest, and emergency medical care, teams also provide psychological first aid to victims of torture and violence.

“I have treated women who were forced into prostitution, kidnapped and raped for months,” said midwife Liza Ramlow. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) has reported a nearly 600 percent increase in potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy by sea between 2014 and 2017, with most victims arriving from Nigeria. Of the more than 11,000 Nigerian girls and women who arrived in Italy in 2016, the IOM estimates that roughly 80 percent are likely to be victims of trafficking.

In July 2016, MSF began providing vital medical care to those detained in Libya, where migrants and refugees are repeatedly victimized by security forces, militias, smuggling networks, and criminal gangs. Our teams run mobile clinics in a number of migrant detention centers in and around Tripoli. In 2017, we carried out more than 17,000 medical consultations in Tripoli alone.

MSF has also launched mental health care projects in reception centers around Italy, where teams of cultural mediators and psychologists screen and provide care to asylum seekers. In Rome, our rehabilitation center for torture survivors uses a multidisciplinary approach, including medical and psychological services, physiotherapy, and social and legal assistance.

In December 2018, MSF and its partner SOS Méditerranée were forced to terminate the lifesaving operations carried out by the Aquarius—the last dedicated rescue boat operating in the Central Mediterranean.

“This is a dark day,” said Nelke Manders, MSF’s general director. “Not only has Europe failed to provide search and rescue capacity, it has also actively sabotaged others’ attempts to save lives. The end of Aquarius means more deaths at sea, and more needless deaths that will go unwitnessed.”

MSF continues to advocate for a more compassionate and coordinated international response to meet the challenges of massive forced displacement and migration.

The Crossing: Night portraits on the rescue boat Prudence