Saving Lives at Sea

Interactive map, charts and data about MSF's search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean

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Why do we do Search and Rescue?

We are responding to the crisis of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. We initiated these activities in 2015 after the Italian Search and Rescue operation called “Mare Nostrum” was terminated. As a medical-humanitarian organisation, standing on the shore as thousands of men, women and children drowned was not an option for us. Until European governments provide safe and legal ways in which people can seek protection in Europe, thousands will continue to risk their lives because it is their only option.

Where do we do Search and Rescue?

The ships we operate from are located in international waters, around 12 to 25 nautical miles from the Libyan coast where the largest number of distress situations arise. As an exception, and when requested or authorised by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), we occasionally enter Libyan Territorial Waters (less than 12 nautical miles) when there is a vessel known to be in distress and with all the necessary authority permissions. In fact, under international maritime laws, it is an obligation that the master of a ship must enter territorial waters when needed to render assistance to people in distress.

Who do we help at sea?

Everyone. Whether they are children or adults, men or women, the people we help at sea are all vulnerable. We see people from all over the world taking this dangerous journey; from Bangladesh, Eritrea, Syria, Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan and many more. The one thing almost all of them have in common is the harsh conditions they have endured on the journey. After every rescue we hear countless first hand accounts of the alarming level of violence and exploitation experienced in Libya at the hands of security forces, militias, smuggling networks, criminal gangs and private individuals.

What are we treating? 

Our medical care

Straight after a rescue our medical staff perform an initial triage to identify people in need of immediate care, who are then treated in the emergency room on board. Once the patient is stabilized, if they are in need of a higher level of care, medical evacuation is possible in coordination with the MRCC via helicopter or speedboat. Non-emergency cases are seen in the outpatient consultation room or during deck consultations; here medics are mainly treating respiratory tract infections, skin diseases, general body pain and other minor complaints. The medics also regularly treat fuel burns, resulting from the prolonged exposure of the skin to a toxic mixture of fuel and salty water in overcrowded boats. Women, especially pregnant women, receive dedicated care thanks to the presence of a midwife onboard. MSF midwifes have assisted the delivery of several babies onboard.




What are we treating?

Our psychological care

Psychological first aid is provided by trained cultural mediators and follow-up with more dedicated mental health care can either be provided on the boat or ashore. During all these consultations our teams hear horrific stories; many of the people we rescue are victims of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Many of our patients, women and men, are victims of sexual violence.

How do we do Search and Rescue?

All our rescues in the Mediterranean are done in coordination with the Italian Coast Guard and the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) based in Rome. In addition, all our rescues are in full compliance with international maritime law, and core humanitarian principles. With the use of binoculars, our crews search for the presence of boats in distress or are alerted by the MRCC of vessels in need of rescue. It is the Italian rescue coordination centre that defines when and where MSF intervenes to rescue a boat in distress and where rescued people are to be safely disembarked.

How do we finance our Search and Rescue operations?

In 2016, just over one percent of our spending was dedicated to Search and Rescue operations in the Mediterranean sea. All information about our finances is public, certified and available on MSF websites. Since June 2016, MSF no longer accepts government funding from the European Union and its Member States, in opposition to their damaging deterrence policies and continued attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores. More info>> 

People assisted at sea since 2015

Source: MSF - Data updated on 30/09/2018 -
The number of people assisted includes those who have been rescued as well as those who have been transferred onboard MSF vessels.

Interactive map of our Search and Rescue operations

Key operational data regarding our Search and Rescue operations are available for consultation on the interactive map. Each operation is geographically positioned on the map by a marker. By selecting the marker, detailed information is provided among which: the vessel involved, the date and duration of the operation, the number of people rescued, the port of departure and of safety, general health observations on the situation onboard, the sea route that the ship has followed.


Visualising Search & Rescue

The operational data are shared through several graphs highlighting some key information including: overall numbers of people rescued and of operations carried out, how the rescue operations are initiated, the involvement of each vessel, and the designated ports of safety we are instructed to disembark at.

Methodological notes

The graph shows the overall number of people assisted by MSF rescue vessels during the period of operation. Under the coordination of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), MSF carries out two types of operations: 1) rescues of people from boats in distress; 2) transshipments of people from or to other ships (transfer IN/OUT) in order to organize efficiently the presence of rescue assets in the area. The number of people assisted includes those who have been rescued as well as those who have been transferred onboard MSF vessels.

Methodological notes

The graph shows how MSF operations start. In the majority of the cases it is the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) that initiates the operation (including those initiated by the Coast Guard ships and the military vessels present in the area). The operation can also be initiated when MSF rescue vessels directly spot a boat in distress or when such information is given by another vessel (ex: the ship of another NGO). No matter from whom the information is received all operations are always coordinated by the MRCC. The number of people assisted includes those who have been rescued as well as those who have been transferred onboard MSF vessels.

Methodological notes

Since the beginning of its operations in 2015, MSF has overall employed five vessels that have been active as follows: in 2015 - Argos, Dignity I and Phoenix; in 2016 - Argos, Dignity I and Aquarius; in 2017 - Prudence and Aquarius. The graph shows the contribution of each vessel to the Search and Rescue activities. The number of people assisted includes those who have been rescued as well as those who have been transferred onboard MSF vessels.

Methodological notes

The graph highlights all the ports (points of safety) where MSF vessels have disembarked. The ports are displayed from the busiest to less active and the measurement is done both in terms of number of people disembarked as well as in terms of number of disembarkations. The point of safety is identified by the MRCC and communicated to MSF vessels.

Methodological notes

The table provides other salient operational data. Operations include rescues and transfers onboard MSF vessels. A journey starts when an MSF vessel leaves to sea from a port and ends with the disembarkation in the same or another port. Within the same journey one or more operations can take place. Medical evacuations take place during the journey while the MSF vessel is at sea. They are organized for patients in need of urgent care, not available on the ship, through the coordination and support of the relevant authorities. Dead bodies are collected while at sea and transported to the port where they are handed over to the relevant authorities.

Average duration of operation:

Average duration of journey:

Number of operations carried out:

Number of disembarkations carried out:

Number of medical evacuations:

Number of dead bodies:

Defending humanity at sea

In late 2016, the Search and Rescue operations were accused of being a “pull factor” for migrants and refugees to attempt dangerous sea journeys and of “deteriorating maritime safety” by increasing deaths and missing in the central Mediterranean.

In view of these accusations, MSF carried out an analysis of the available data on attempted sea crossings including numbers of arrivals, deaths, and missing people in the Central Mediterranean. 

Find out more about the main findings of the research by reading the full report or its issue brief.

Vessels at sea

Aquarius (with SOS Méditerranée)- 2016/2018

The Aquarius is currently sailing under the flag of Gibraltar. On board there are three different crews: the nautical and technical crew, the rescue crew from Sos Méditerranée and the medical crew from MSF. It has the capacity to take onboard up to 500 rescued people. SHOW ON LIVE MAP>>

Prudence- 2016/2017

The Prudence, sailing under the flag of Italy, was operationally active from March 2017 to October 2017 and run solely by MSF. The vessel had the capacity to transport up to 750 people with contingency for other 400. It had 13 MSF staff members on board in charge of medical activities and rescues, and 17 non-MSF nautical and technical crew tasked primarily with the navigation and maintenance of the ship.

Argos- 2015/2016

The ship provided search and rescue support from May 2015 to November 2016 under the flag of Luxembourg. The vessel had the capacity to carry 300 – 350 rescued people. The MSF crew on board was in charge of medical activities and rescue.

Dignity I- 2015/2016

The MSF ship Dignity I ran search and rescue operations from 2015 to 2016. All the crew on board was MSF. The vessel had the capacity to carry 300 rescued people, and was sailing under the flag of Panama.

Phoenix (with MOAS)- 2015

From May to October 2015, the Phoenix, run by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), had an MSF medical team of two doctors and a nurse on board to provide humanitarian medical aid. The ship was sailing under the flag of Norway.