© Maud Veith/SOS Méditerranée

Mediterranean search and rescue

We have resumed life-saving operations in the Central Mediterranean after a sustained two-year campaign by EU governments to end humanitarian action at sea

Every year, thousands of people flee violence, insecurity, and persecution

They attempt a treacherous journey via north Africa and Turkey, in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

And every year, countless lives are lost on these journeys.

An estimated 426 people have drowned while attempting to cross from Libya to Europe by sea in the first six months of 2019 - nearly double compared with the same period in 2018.

“Our presence at sea is to save lives – that’s the bottom line. But we will not be silent while vulnerable people suffer."
Sam TurnerMSF representative for Search and Rescue and Libya

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Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has resumed life-saving search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean and we condemn the criminal inaction of European governments.

Operating in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE, the new ship 'Ocean Viking' set sail from the port of Marseilles, France, on Sunday 4 August.

The ship carried out its first rescue of 85 people on Friday 9 August.

The return to sea comes after a sustained two-year campaign by EU governments to stop virtually all humanitarian action at sea, and the normalisation of vindictive policies that have caused deaths at sea and suffering in conflict ridden Libya.

Politicians would have you believe that the deaths of hundreds of people at sea, and suffering of the thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya, are the acceptable price of attempts to control migration,” said Sam Turner, MSF's representative for Search and Rescue and Libya.

“The cold reality is that while they herald the end of the so-called European migration crisis, they are knowingly turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis these policies perpetuate in Libya and at sea. These deaths and suffering are preventable, and as long as it continues, we refuse to sit idle.”

Latest news: Place of safety offered for 356 rescued people >

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MSF search and rescue: the facts

We are returning to sea because European governments are failing to fulfil their basic legal obligations to protect vulnerable people.

Our presence in the central Mediterranean is a direct result of European governments’ failures to provide sufficient and dedicated search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean Sea, who are pandering to xenophobic sentiment and externalising their borders at an extreme human cost.

Who is rescued?

Everyone has the right to flee for their safety, to seek asylum, and to have their asylum claim assessed. At no point should this involve anyone being forced to risk their lives.

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, 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?

Our primary aim is to prevent loss of life, not to provide transport.

International law says that people rescued should be disembarked in a place of safety. As a humanitarian organisation concerned with the well-being of vulnerable people rescued, we will seek to swiftly disembark in the closest safe port.

MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE do not decide the port of disembarkation - this is decided by the competent maritime authorities. In 2018, Aquarius - MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE's former ship - disembarked people in Italy, Malta and Spain under the coordination of the relevant maritime authorities.

About Ocean Viking, MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE's ship

MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE's search and rescue ship, Ocean Viking

Ocean Viking is a Norwegian-owned ship with a Norwegian flag.

It is an offshore supply vessel that was originally conceived for rescues, as an Emergency Response and Rescue Vessel (ERRV) - a stand-by offshore vessel ready for rescuing a large number of oil workers from oil platforms in case of an accident and mass casualties.

It is fully equipped to perform search and rescue with four high speed rescue boats, as well as a medical clinic with consultation, triage and recovery rooms.

The MSF team in charge of the medical and humanitarian needs of the rescued people on board consists of nine people: four medics (one doctor, two nurses, one midwife), a logistician, one cultural mediator, a humanitarian affairs officer, a field communications manager and a project coordinator who leads the team.

The SOS MEDITERRANEE team, who are in charge of the search and rescue, consists of 12 people, and are led by the search and rescue coordinator. Then there are a further nine people who are part of the ship’s marine crew and are employed by the ship owner.

© Gabriele François Casini/MSF

A compromise to MSF’s neutrality?

We are compelled first and foremost to assist people who are dying in the Mediterranean. We have the means and, for us, ignoring the problem is 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.

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