© Anthony Jean/SOS MEDITERRANEE
MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE teams rescue 98 people from a fragile rubber boat in the Mediterranean on 18 February 2020
17 Apr 20 01 May 20

Central Mediterranean: Countering COVID-19 is no justification for letting people drown

European governments must stop using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to enforce deadly migration control policies and must immediately lift the obstacles preventing non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from saving lives at sea, says MSF in an urgent call today.

The plea follows grotesque scenes that played out in the Mediterranean Sea over the Easter weekend.

Citing COVID-19 as justification for not assisting, 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 ships.

"At this critical moment, the UK government must act to prevent further loss of life and suffering in the Central Mediterranean."
Vickie hawkinsmsf uk executive director

European aerial assets meanwhile surveilled from above, watching as the situation deteriorated over a period of days, but not taking action.

At least five people have now been confirmed dead and seven are missing as a direct result, while contact with a boat carrying approximately 85 people was lost on 12 April and despite claims by the European Border Agency FRONTEX that it arrived in Sicily, it is feared to have capsized.

Duty to save lives – both on land and at sea

“As an emergency medical humanitarian organisation responding to the pandemic in Europe and beyond, MSF understands the serious challenges presented by COVID-19,” said MSF operations manager Annemarie Loof.

“But safeguarding the wellbeing of those on land and upholding the duty to save lives at sea are not mutually exclusive principles.”

An Ocean Viking crew member holds a little girl as 182 survivors disembark in Messina, Italy, a week after they were rescued at sea. Italy has since closed its ports to rescued people.

“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. 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.

“MSF is concerned that states are instrumentalising outbreak control measures to justify the violation of international law and humanitarian principles, leaving the most vulnerable to die at Europe’s borders.”

Left with no alternatives

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 last year. 

According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 650,000 refugees and migrants are now stranded in the country, and 150,000 Libyans have additionally been displaced.

Over the past week alone, more than 700 people attempted to flee in flimsy wooden and rubber boats – their only means of escape from the unfolding humanitarian disaster.

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.

End of search and rescue partnership

Despite the undeniable need for dedicated search and rescue efforts, European states, including the UK, continue to abdicate their responsibilities, relentlessly thwarting NGO efforts.

The result is a context of hostility and uncertainty, paralysing the efforts of those endeavouring 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 pandemic, rendering MSF and its partner SOS MEDITERRANEE unable to agree on sailing at this time and 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 recognising 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.” 

UK government must act now

European states – having reduced NGO search and rescue capacity and placed extreme constraints on those few left – must now, finally, take responsibility for the humanitarian crisis at sea they have fostered. They must reinstate EU search and rescue capacity and end funding and support to the Libyan coastguard to forcibly return people to Libya.

“At this critical moment, the UK government must act to prevent further loss of life and suffering in the Central Mediterranean,” said MSF UK executive director Vickie Hawkins.

“Amidst the global pandemic and irrespective of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the UK government must uphold their responsibilities to protect refugees and migrants. Vulnerable people must not be abandoned on what has become the world’s deadliest migration route.”

The UK government must commit to:

  • supporting dedicated search and rescue in the central Mediterranean to prevent further loss of life;
  • ending its support for the policy of containment, via the Libyan Coastguard, as their continued forcible return of refugees and migrants to Libya is further compounding the problem;
  • facilitating the humanitarian evacuation out of Libya of vulnerable refugees and migrants exposed to the most imminent life-threatening risks.