European governments must stop using COVID-19 as an excuse to block lifesaving search and rescue operations

MSF ends Ocean Viking partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE

MSF Humanitarian Affairs Officer Yuka Crickmar is seen on deck as MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE teams prepare to transfer the 356 men, women and children on board the Ocean Viking for transfer to the Armed Forces of Malta for disembarkation in Malta.
Mediterranean Sea 2019 © Hannah Wallace Bowman/MSF
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Amsterdam/New York, April 17, 2020 – European governments must stop using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to enforce deadly migration control policies and must immediately lift obstacles preventing nongovernmental organizations from saving lives at sea, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in an urgent call today.

“MSF is concerned that states are instrumentalizing outbreak control measures to justify the violation of international law and humanitarian principles, leaving the most vulnerable to die at Europe’s borders,” said MSF operations manager Annemarie Loof. “As an emergency medical humanitarian organization responding to the pandemic in Europe and beyond, MSF understands the serious challenges presented by COVID-19. But safeguarding the well-being of those on land and upholding the duty to save lives at sea are not mutually exclusive principles.”

MSF’s demands follow grotesque scenes that played out in the Mediterranean Sea over the weekend of the Easter holiday, around April 12.* Citing COVID-19 as justification for not providing assistance, Malta and Italy failed to respond to multiple overloaded dinghies in distress in their search and rescue regions, and declined a place of safety for disembarkation to nearly 200 people rescued by two NGO-run ships. European aerial assets surveilled the scene from above, watching as the situation deteriorated over a period of days, but did not take action. At least five people have now been confirmed dead and seven are missing as a direct result. Contact with a boat carrying approximately 85 people was lost on April 12. Despite claims by the European Border Agency FRONTEX that this boat arrived in Sicily, it is feared to have capsized.

“The call by Germany for NGOs to cease search and rescue activities and decisions by Italy and Malta to close their ports to rescued people are discriminatory and disproportionate,” said Loof. “At best, these are ill-informed and knee-jerk reactions; at worst, this is calculated and cynical leveraging of public health concerns to prohibit lifesaving operations, shutting the door to those in desperate need of protection."

With resettlement, relocation, and repatriation mechanisms suspended, there are currently no alternatives for refugees and migrants trying to escape Libya, a country that has been embroiled in conflict for the past year. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 650,000 refugees and migrants are now stranded in the country, and an additional 150,000 Libyans have been displaced. Over the past week alone, more than 700 people have attempted to flee in flimsy wooden and rubber boats – their only means of escape from the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Libya. Additionally, disembarkations of refugees and migrants intercepted at sea and forcibly returned by the Libyan coastguard have been delayed twice in the past week because of shelling around ports in Tripoli.

European states – having reduced NGO search and rescue capacity and placed extreme constraints on those few still operating – must now, finally, take responsibility for the humanitarian crisis at sea that they have fostered. This means stopping further loss of life and suffering by reinstating EU search and rescue capacity and ending funding and support to the Libyan coastguard to forcibly return people to Libya.

End of the partnership between MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE

Despite the undeniable need for dedicated search and rescue efforts, European states continue to abdicate their responsibilities, relentlessly thwarting NGO efforts. The result is a context of hostility and uncertainty, paralyzing the efforts of those that endeavor to fill the gap in lifesaving capacity left by governments. Despite having a ship and medical, humanitarian, and rescue teams ready to return to sea, barriers to humanitarian action in the Mediterranean have been further compounded by the current COVID-19 pandemic. MSF and its partner SOS MEDITERRANEE are unable to agree on sailing at this time, undermining the viability of the partnership.

Although both MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE agree on the vital need for our lifesaving work at sea, SOS MEDITERRANEE felt further assurance from states regarding a place of safety was necessary before sailing,” said Loof. “For MSF, the humanitarian imperative to act was immediate, with or without such assurances. We could not stand by with a fully equipped search and rescue ship in port as people continue to flee Libya and risk drowning. As such, and despite recognizing that governments’ attempts to exacerbate existing barriers to our mission was a real dilemma, MSF has taken the very difficult decision to end our partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE.”

MSF has worked in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE since 2016. Together we have rescued and assisted more than 30,000 people with two search and rescue vessels, Aquarius and Ocean Viking.

MSF continues to work in Libya, providing humanitarian and medical assistance to migrant and refugee populations stranded in the country, both inside official detention centers and within the community. The organization is also currently responding to the coronavirus pandemic across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas, including in many countries with weak health systems and highly vulnerable people, including migrants and refugees living in overcrowded conditions in detention centers or camps, without adequate water or sanitation and limited access to health care.

*Additional Note: Over the Easter weekend, one boat arrived autonomously to Porto Palo in Sicily, while another with approximately 47 people on board issued multiple distress calls from Maltese waters. The latter boat received no assistance for over 40 hours from the Maltese Armed Forces and was ultimately rescued by Salvamento Maritìmo Humanitario’s vessel Aita Mari, which diverted course while in transit to provide life-saving assistance. Another boat, with approximately 55 people on board, remained stranded in the Maltese search and rescue region and ultimately was picked up by a commercial ship in Maltese waters, with five dead and seven others reported missing. The survivors were eventually returned to Tripoli by a Libyan vessel, but they could not disembark for several hours because of continued insecurity in the area of the port.