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An Aquarius search and rescue mission on 1 November 2017. The team retrieved more than 500 people from three overloaded rubber boats in distress that day, but an unknown number remained missing, presumed drowned. © Maud Veith/SOS Méditerranée

Libya, Mediterranean Sea

Mediterranean migration

An Aquarius search and rescue mission on 1 November 2017. The team retrieved more than 500 people from three overloaded rubber boats in distress that day, but an unknown number remained missing, presumed drowned. © Maud Veith/SOS Méditerranée

    In 2019, one person dies in the Central Mediterranean for every 10 who arrive in Europe by sea.

    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.

    People in Libya are also often detained in detention centres, usually in horrendous conditions - and those in detention in Tripoli have been trapped in the ongoing conflict in the city, with some centres having been caught in airstrikes, with people unable to escape, and then killed or injured.

    European attempts to stem migration by strengthening national borders and bolstering detention facilities outside its borders are pushing people into smugglers hands to get them past checkpoints, across borders, through fences, out of prisons and ultimately onto boats on the Mediterranean Sea.

    For those people who do make it to Europe, the challenges - and dangers faced - start again once onshore. A lack of shelter, being forced to live in unhygienic conditions or in adverse weather, treacherous border crossings, hostile authorities - in these circumstances, people become sick, injured, or struggle with mental health issues.

    Instead of confronting the vicious cycle that their own policies are creating, politicians have hidden behind unfounded accusations towards NGOs and individuals who attempt to help people in dire straits.

    MSF and search and rescue

    Since May 2015 we have provided search and rescue operations with boats in the Central Mediterranean Sea. For seven months, between December 2018 and July 2019, we had no search and rescue activities when we were forced to terminate search and rescue activities on the boat Aquarius, which we operated in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE. In July 2019, we returned to search and rescue operations, again with SOS MEDITERRANEE, with the boat Ocean Viking.

    During our Search and Rescue operations, MSF has been shot at by the European-funded Libyan coast guard and repeatedly accused of collusion with traffickers.

    While there is currently very little dedicated search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean, people are still trying to flee Libya; over 34,000 people attempted the deadly crossing in 2018, and nearly 9,000 have attempted it in the first six months of 2019. [*]

    Over 1,100 people died attempting the crossing in 2018; in 2019, people continue to drown.

    We decided to return to sea in July 2019 because search and rescue is a duty, fuelled by the humanitarian need to prevent people from drowning while they seek safety from Libya.

    Criminalisation of lifesaving search and rescue

    In 2018, our Search and Rescue operations encountered ever-larger obstacles, in an increasingly hostile environment, amid intense political pressure. In June, Italian and Maltese authorities denied the Aquarius a safe port to disembark 629 people on board; from this point, Italian ports were effectively closed to NGO search and rescue vessels.

    In both August and September, the Aquarius was stripped of its flag and registration by the Gibraltar and Panama Maritime Authorities, respectively, after coming under political pressure.

    Hostile attacks on Aquarius continued in November, when the Italian judiciary requested the seizure of Aquarius due to spurious claims of waste mismanagement. Without a flag and registration, Aquarius was unable to continue its lifesaving mission and in December 2018, it was forced to terminate its search and rescue activities.

    In 2019, the situation – both in Libya and politically in Europe – has deteriorated.

    Tripoli has been plunged into conflict, where detention centres have been surrounded by fighting and hit by airstrikes. People are desperately trying to flee.

    In Europe, standoffs over rescued people have continued; in the space of a year, there have been 21 rescue stand-offs, affecting over 2,600 vulnerable men, women and children.

    Upon announcement that we were returning to sea with the Ocean Viking, Italy’s Interior Minister declared that Italy’s ports would remain closed to humanitarian rescue vessels.

    Our ships

    Over the past four years, we have operated, or been partners on, six ships:

    • Phoenix, in partnership with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS);
    • Dignity I;
    • Bourbon Argos;
    • Prudence;
    • Aquarius, in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE; and
    • Ocean Viking, in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE.

    Medical care

    Our medical teams on board treat violence-related injuries resulting from time in detention, torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence.

    Women, especially pregnant women, receive dedicated care thanks to the presence of a midwife. Our midwives have assisted the delivery of several babies onboard our boats.

    We also provide care to people with skin diseases, dehydration, hypothermia, scabies and serious injuries such as chemical burns caused by fuel mixing with sea water during the crossing. Psychological first aid is provided by trained cultural mediators.

    During these consultations our teams often hear horrific stories; many of the people we rescue are victims of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

    In 2017, we launched a website in English, Spanish, French and Italian dedicated to our search and rescue operations. It provides answers to frequently asked questions and features an interactive map.

    What is MSF doing on land?

    Once on land, people arriving in Europe discover the dangerous border crossings, are often beaten by authorities, and are forced to live in atrocious conditions, usually outdoors - including during winter.

    In one migrant camp in Italy, a quarter of respondents to a survey said there was poor hygiene conditions in the camp. In a nearby settlement, more than one in ten said there was a lack of drinking water.

    I’m sleeping under the bridge with other people. I have no money and no way of communicating with my family. I’m really tired. Nobody takes care of us, nobody asks me how I’m feeling or how I’m living.
    Migrant living in Roja River settlement, northern Italy

    In Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Serbia and Sweden our teams have provided or are providing a range of services including medical and psychological support.

    We also provide shelter, water, sanitation and essential relief items at reception centres, informal settlements and transit camps.

    Support centres

    Our teams in France identify young people, who have usually undertaken the journey unaccompanied, and offer them support through a day centre for minors in Paris. Teams there provide respite, medical care and administrative assistance through the drop-in day centre.

    MSF also runs specialised centres for the rehabilitation of survivors of torture in Athens, most of whom came across the seas seeking safety and protection in Europe.