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.