Every year, thousands of people fleeing violence, insecurity, and persecution at home attempt a treacherous journey via north Africa and across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. And every year, countless lives are lost on these journeys.

In 2015 alone, more than 3,770 people are thought to have died during the crossing; By June 2016, more than 2,800 people have drowned or gone missing.

"A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea," says Loris De Filippi, president of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Italy.

"Faced with thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and crises, Europe has closed its borders, forcing people in search of protection to risk their lives and die at sea. There is no more time to think, these lives must be saved now."

"Nobody deserves to drown at sea" - Simon Bryant, MSF doctor
Read our Moving Stories blog

Listen to Dr Simon Bryant discuss his time aboard the Phoenix, a search and rescue vessel owned by MOAS, on which MSF coordinated search and rescue efforts last year. This is an episode of the MSF podcast Everyday Emergency.

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One Love: Aboard the Bourbon Argos, 24 December 2015

We rescued 20,129 people on the Mediterranean in 2015. They inspired us and gave us hope. Find out more: http://msf.me/1ZLyx30

Posted by Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Tuesday, 5 January 2016

What is MSF doing to help?


MSF relaunched the Dignity 1 on 21 April 2016. Since then, we have launched two other boats, the Bourbon Argos and Aquarius (run by SOS Mediterranée). 


After eight months at sea, 20,129 people rescued, and over 120 separate search and rescue operations, MSF's remaining search and rescue ship the Bourbon Argos returned to port for the last time in 2015 on 30 December.

Until 23 September, MSF had a team of six people providing post rescue care on board the Phoenix, a search and rescue vessel run by MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) which began operations on 2 May. The medical care available ranged from primary care right through to resuscitation and advanced life support. On 23 September, MSF ended work on the Phoenix. Find out more.

On 9 May, we launched the Bourbon Argos. The ship has 26 people on board (of which 14 are MSF staff), including an  experienced search and rescue team as well as MSF medical specialists, water and sanitation experts and logisticians. The Argos had the capacity to carry up to 700 rescued people to land.

On 13 June, we launched our third ship, Dignity I. The ship had a crew of 18 people, which included medical staff.  The 50 metre-long vessel had the capacity to carry 300 people to land.

Latest tweets from @MSF_Sea

Recent rescues

10 June 2016

Since 21 April 2016, when MSF’s search and rescue operations began for this year, MSF teams on board the Dignity 1, Bourbon Argos and Aquarius (in partnership with SOS Mediterranée) have rescued a total of 3,349 people in the course of 27 different rescue operations.              

Find out more and hear from our emergency coordinator

Who is rescued?

Refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are not interchangeable terms. The following is a brief explanation of the very different legal definitions:

  • refugee is a person who has fled his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Refugee status is assessed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or a sympathetic state.
  • An asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee and is seeking asylum in another country, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.
  • migrant is someone who chooses to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families.

As a humanitarian agency involved in search and rescue, MSF does not have a mandate or means to assess the immigration status of the people we assist.

We provide medical care without judgment and strongly believe that no human being should drown when the means exist to prevent it.

Where are the people rescued at sea taken?

Refugee crisis

59.5 million people have been forced from their homes across the world, the largest displacement of people since the Second World War
UNHCR estimates 137,000 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean this year in search of a better life
At least 1,900 people have died crossing the Mediterranean in 2015
More than 22,000 people have died trying to reach Europe since 2000
Our primary aim was to prevent loss of life, not to provide transport.

When a situation arose in which we had to intervene, we did so under the direction of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome.

They also decided where those we rescued should disembark, as dictated by the laws of the sea.

As a rule, those we rescued were taken either to reception centers in southern Italy (Sicily) or transferred from search and rescue boats to Italian coast guard vessels.

A compromise to MSF’s neutrality?

We felt compelled first and foremost to assist people who were dying in the Mediterranean. We had the means and, for us, ignoring the problem was not an option.

Of course, we are aware that by doing this we are entering a very contentious political debate in Europe. But we believe that inaction cannot be justified on ideological grounds and that, in fact, as a medical organisation that takes its cues from medical ethics, we must take action. Find out more about our principles.

Follow @MSF_Sea and @MSF_uk on Twitter for realtime updates

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