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Search and rescue in the Mediterranean

Mediterranean 2021 © Avra Fialas/MSF
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Every year, thousands of people fleeing war, persecution, and poverty at home attempt the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Europe. Countless lives are lost on the way.

Closing safe and legal options for people to reach safety pushes them further into people smugglers' networks. In Libya, the detention of migrants and refugees is a thriving enterprise of kidnapping and extortion.

MSF is helping people trying to cross the central Mediterranean Sea with our own search and rescue vessel, Geo Barents. We also provide assistance to people held in Libyan detention centers and those arriving in Europe.

MSF Geo Barents ready to sail

MSF relaunches search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean

Read more

What is the Mediterranean refugee crisis?

The vast majority of people attempting the Mediterranean crossing pass through Libya, where they are exposed to horrific levels of violence, including kidnapping, torture, and extortion. 

In June 2021, MSF temporarily suspended activities in Mabani and Abu Salim detention centers in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, following repeated incidents of violence towards refugees and migrants. 

The increase in violence in detention centers coincides with a significant rise in the number of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard, which is funded by the European Union (EU). Those intercepted by the Libyan coastguard are forcibly returned to Libya and locked up in detention centers. As of June 19, more than 14,000 people have been returned to Libya this year, exceeding the total number of forced returns for 2020.

Since 2015, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (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.

In May 2021, we announced that after a pause of a couple of months, we are returning to search and rescue—this time providing our own rescue capacity.

How does MSF help refugees on the Mediterranean?

MSF began search and rescue activities in 2015 to fill the gap left by the termination of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operations. 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 EU or its member states in opposition to their extraordinarily harmful migration policies.

From December 2018 and July 2019 we had no search and rescue activities after operations on the ship Aquarius, which we operated in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE, ended. In July 2019, we returned to search and rescue, again with SOS MEDITERRANEE, with the boat Ocean Viking.

In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities in Italy found flimsy excuses to detain search and rescue vessels, leaving almost no search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean and putting lives at risk. In September 2020, the Sea-Watch 4 was detained and impounded by Italian authorities for a period of six months, at a moment when six other search and rescue vessels were likewise detained.

In 2021, we have chartered our own boat, the Geo Barents, retrofitting it to make it suitable for search and rescue operations. The Geo Barents has been chartered from the Norwegian shipping company Uksnøy, and sails under the flag of Norway.

There is currently very little dedicated search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean, but people are still trying to flee Libya. From January to July 2021, nearly 21,000 people arrived in Italy after making the treacherous journey.

This number doesn’t include the people who die or go missing in the attempt. At least 1,146 people died on the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2021, an average of over 44 people a week—more than double for the same period in 2020. This also doesn’t count the thousands who have been intercepted and returned to Libya, where they face violence, lack of access to essential services, and detention in horrific conditions.

How many refugees have crossed the Mediterranean?

According to the IOM, more than 1.7 million crossed the Mediterranean from 2015-2021. 

How else is MSF providing medical care for Mediterranean refugees?

Many of the people rescued by the Geo Barents have undertaken harrowing journeys. MSF has treated many for traumatic injuries, fuel burns, seasickness, and severe sunburns. Some need further care and require specialized assistance once they reach land. The ship performed a series of rescues from June 10 to 12, rescuing 410 people who all showed signs of extreme exhaustion and various other needs. Among them were 16 women, one of whom was pregnant, as well as 101 unaccompanied children. Most people were from countries affected by conflict, including Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Mali.

How you can help

Not everyone can treat patients in the field. But everyone can do something.

Some humanitarian crises make the headlines—others don’t. Unrestricted support from our donors allows us to mobilize quickly and efficiently to provide lifesaving medical care to the people who need it most, whether those needs are in the spotlight or not. And your donation is 100 percent tax-deductible.

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We need your support to continue this lifesaving work

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