Le président international de MSF, Christos Christou, s'entretient avec des survivants à bord du Geo Barents lors de la rotation 50. © MSF/Mohamad Cheblak
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Letter from the Geo Barents Christos Christou, MSF International President

On Friday, February 23, 2024

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Letter from the Geo Barents

Christos Christou, MSF International President


In late January I had the privilege to join the MSF team on board the Geo Barents for nearly two weeks. MSF has been running search and rescue (SAR) activities since 2015, as a direct response to European Union policies of disengagement and non-assistance along this stretch of the sea, which is the deadliest migration route in the world. Since May 2021, the Geo Barents has been our search and rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean Sea.

Over the last nearly nine years, we have worked on eight different SAR vessels, independently or in partnership with other non-governmental organisations. Our teams have provided lifesaving assistance to more than 91,000 people. As EU leaders continue to endorse and re-package harmful policies to reduce arrivals at European shores, we keep treating the physical and mental health consequences of such policies onboard.

I joined the 23 MSF staff and 11 crew members in Naples, Italy. As we left port and headed out to sea, I was welcomed onboard, and given an induction and a tour of the ship. The sea sickness of the first day was followed by breakfast with the team, and training on search, rescue, and medical activities on board.

As we sailed to the search and rescue zone, I listened to stories from our medical team about the patients we typically see on the ship. Most injuries and illnesses our team sees are directly related to people’s long journeys at sea: hypothermia, dehydration, fuel burns or poisoning. They also often treat symptoms related to inhumane living conditions while people have been detained in Libya. Many patients have survived sexual violence. Some women carry unwanted pregnancies due to sexual assaults while on the move. Such events inevitably impact their mental health; patients report anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and trauma from witnessing or experiencing extreme violence.

The team described the pain they felt at having to recover the bodies of people who did not make it. But there were smiles on their faces as they showed me the picture of the baby who was born onboard!

As we continued the rough journey south, we were informed that another NGO rescue vessel was detained in Crotone, Italy. We were sad to hear this, but perhaps not surprised. On 3 January 2023, the Italian government introduced a new set of rules, applied exclusively to civilian search and rescue vessels, which further restrict humanitarian assistance at sea. The decree includes the requirement of ships to immediately head to port after each rescue, compelling them to ignore any other distress calls at sea – a flagrant violation of a captain’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Almost a year ago, the Geo Barents was the first vessel to bear the consequences of this decree, having been detained for 20 days and fined.

“Since this decree came into force, this new detention is the fifteenth of an NGO ship,” Juan, the head of mission told me. “This accumulates to a total of 300 days where the civilian fleet has been kept away from the Central Mediterranean, reducing the rescue capacity on this deadly route. This law is just one of the latest examples of how European states are using their administrative powers to punish organisations involved in rescuing lives at sea.”

But, while the authorities target our vessels, the real price is paid by those fleeing for safety.

While waiting for the weather to improve – which would invariably mean there would be people to rescue – I got to know this amazing team. There are two search and rescue teams; they include cultural

mediators who can speak several languages. There is the medical team. People working in logistics, communications, coordination. They work amazingly together, like a well-oiled machine. They are a special group of people – passionate and committed. They are active members of civil society, with so many interests and deep political understanding. Some of them are themselves refugees or are second-generation migrants. But they all have such a sense of empathy, humility, and humanity in lending a hand to those lost on the sea and welcoming them to Europe.

As the weather calmed and we arrived in the search and rescue zone, members of the team started searching for boats in distress. I was attending an online meeting when our radios sounded: “MSF team, MSF team, get ready for rescue”.

Our two rigid inflatable boats (RHIBs), Mike and Orca, left the Geo Barents and went straight out, approaching the boats. The rescue started. The rest of us were waiting on deck. People started coming up the side of the ship. I joined the medical team during the rescue, assessing people’s medical conditions and triaging and focusing on those who needed more immediate assistance. Two people arrived on board in a state of shock, and I took them in charge, providing them with care and reassurance.

As people stepped onto the deck, they were wet and shivering, with anxious looks on their faces. We offered them dry, warm clothes, food, water and a place to rest. It was comforting to see the 68 rescued people safe on board and resting after such a dangerous and stressful journey. Among them, there was one pregnant woman and several children. They came from Syria, Palestine, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt. As the reality of their new situation sunk in – that they had been rescued – the look of happiness and relief on their faces was amazing to see.

The authorities designated us Genova, in northern Italy, as the port of safety and disembarkation – a journey of four days, during which we passed by so many other Italian ports. 

“It makes no sense, and it is frustrating to see that we are wasting time navigating instead of being where we are most needed,” Celine, our project coordinator, said to me. 

According to the new Italian law, rescue ships must head to the place of safety assigned by the authorities immediately after the rescue. This law also requires NGO vessels to conduct one rescue at a time. In some cases, they are forced to ignore other alerts of boats in distress.

As we sailed to Genova, everyone on board got to know each other, including the team. The days passed with activities. Cleaning the deck, stretching exercises, distributing food and visiting the onboard barber. I spent time listening to the people who had been rescued. I spoke with Samir, an 11-year-old boy from Syria travelling without his parents. He has sisters back in Syria. He was hoping to head to Germany. In speaking with him, I realised there was a loss of innocence for someone his age and that his childhood had been stolen. I listened to Muhammad, who had fled Bangladesh, as he described his life in Libya, being locked in a room for three months, begging for food as people around him died after being tortured. Each one of the people I spoke to had their own journey and had their own story to tell. But they had one thing in common, the hell they had lived through in Libya.

For many years now, the European Union has systematically failed to address the migration issue in a way that considers the internal, external and border management dimensions together. Instead, they’ve tried to shift the responsibility onto countries of origin and transit, through a transactional approach – with the latter being called upon to keep, readmit or repatriate migrants in exchange for economic support.

People on the move in Libya are exposed to abuse, forced labour, exploitation and arbitrary detention in unofficial and official facilities, at the hands of guards, human smugglers and traffickers and various

militia who enact quasi-policing and law enforcement roles. It’s no surprise that our medical teams treat the physical and psychological consequences of such violence on people: scars from gunshot wounds, broken and severed limbs, and scars caused by recurrent violent beatings with metal bars, electric cables, baseball bats, machetes, and knives.

Their stories are just some of the human consequences of Europe’s harmful migration policies and deals with third countries. I understand why people tell us that they would rather die at sea than be pushed back to Libya. 

What I do not understand is how can the EU support and fund such a cycle of violence and abuse. Even worse, this is a vicious cycle that Europe has created and is now trapped in. 

Our teams see and respond to the consequences of this in Poland, Greece, Libya, the Balkans, Italy. These places have become the European Union’s laboratories and testing grounds for increasingly harmful migration policies and practices. Looking ahead of us, trying to “link the dots” and further capitalise on the experience gained from migration projects in Europe, Latin America and beyond, MSF must maintain its operational footprint in the region.

As we were approaching the end of our trip, the 68 survivors on board woke early in the morning and got ready for disembarkation. It was emotional to see people leave the ship. Ahead of them was the unknown. What is going to happen next? Where are they going and how they will be treated? We know that their journeys don’t end here. We know that there will be enormous challenges ahead. They were anxious and uncertain; you could see it in their eyes. But they were relieved to have been rescued, to have survived this step. Their days on Geo Barents were an oasis, a ray of hope, a calm moment – a chance to relax and recharge – on their difficult journeys.

In joining this amazing team and seeing this vital work, I’ve been reminded again what MSF is about. In all the places we work and the journeys we are present for – from Palestine, Sudan, Bangladesh, Mexico, to the Sahel, Syria, DRC or Europe – we will never stop standing in solidarity with, and assisting those, most in need.

We will never stop lending our helping hand. We will never stop defending humanity.

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