People often tell us they had no other option but to undertake the deadly sea crossing to Europe. They tell us they are fleeing violence, war, persecution and poverty in their home countries. Regardless of their country of origin or their reasons for trying to reach European shores, almost everyone rescued from this stretch of water has passed through Libya, where many of them have been exposed to alarming levels of violence and exploitation.
Many of those we have rescued report having directly experienced violence in Libya, while almost all report witnessing extreme violence against refugees and migrants, including beatings, sexual violence and murder. After the traumatizing experience of leaving their home countries, crossing the Sahara and surviving in Libya, there is often no way back and the dangerous sea crossing is one of the only ways to escape.
People crossing the Central Mediterranean and reaching Italy in 2016 were mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, of which many with international protection needs. In 2015, Eritrean refugees were the largest group crossing the Mediterranean and in 2016, Eritreans were the second-largest group. They told MSF they were fleeing lack of freedom in this small East African nation and forced military conscription for years or even decades, with defectors at risk of being rounded up, imprisoned, tortured or killed.
Many people came from Nigeria, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Gambia. There were also significant numbers from Sudan, Somalia and Bangladesh. The majority of people rescued were men. In 2016 there were an increasing number of unaccompanied and separated children, and MSF teams saw relatively high numbers of pregnant women (around 1 in every 10 women rescued). Some women were in the advanced stages of pregnancy and several babies were born onboard.
As humanitarians we cannot stand back and watch from the shore as thousands of men, women and children drown at sea. The number of people dying trying to reach Europe is comparable to what Médecins Sans Frontières is used to seeing in warzones, with the UN Migration Agency recording at least 5,000 deaths last year (2016).
The EU and its border agency’s failure to reduce the number of deaths at sea through counter smuggling activities combined with the lack of large scale search and rescue operations has meant that MSF and other humanitarian organisations have – in an unprecedented move – been forced to step in to avoid further loss of life.Since starting activities in 2015, we have known that search and rescue is not a solution, as only safe alternatives can reduce deaths at sea, but it is the only concrete measure that can save lives and contribute to reducing the number of people dying in the short term.
The number of people who died trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean has reached an all-time high but what is worse is that the actual number of deaths is likely to be much higher. We have no idea how many dinghies overloaded with terrified passengers set sail from Libya in the direction of Italy each day and how many of them sink without trace before they reach busy shipping lanes in the Mediterranean or call for help.
Efforts by the European Union to strengthen border control, increasing militarization and a focus on disrupting smuggling networks has only resulted in more people drowning not fewer. Unscrupulous smuggling networks have been quick to adapt their way of operating, and the crossing by sea has only become even deadlier.
We believe that until safer alternative are provided people will continue to take these dangerous routes and risk their lives. SAR is not a solution to this crisis but it is only an emergency measure that can mitigate the number of deaths. That is why we call EU to put in place a dedicated mechanism to rescue people at sea. In any case, the focus of European policies on targeting smugglers, which remain a symptom of the lack of safe and legal channels, should not take precedence over the urgency of providing lifesaving assistance and appropriate humanitarian assistance for those who risk their life in search of safety and a better life.
The reasons why people leave their home countries are complex but once at sea on a flimsy and overcrowded inflatable dinghy, all are vulnerable and need to be rescued and brought to safety. Many people cannot swim and most are not wearing life jackets. It is an imminent life and death situation and the risk of mass drowning is always present.
People do not undertake this journey lightly, people do not risk their own lives and at times the lives of their children if there are easier options available to them. Once out of harm’s way, people should have their medical and protection needs assessed on an individual basis and not depending on their nationality of origin. Whether they are able to stay in Europe or not, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and humanity.
It’s important to remember that NGO ships are not the only vessels rescuing boats in distress in the Mediterranean. Under international maritime law, all ships in the area must assist when a boat is in distress and this stretch of sea is a busy merchant shipping route. In 2016 we saw Libyan¬ based smugglers heavily relying on this International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) which legally obliges all vessels at sea to come to the aid of boats in distress and bring people to a place of safety. The majority of rescues in 2016 were carried out by military ships, FRONTEX vessels and the Italian Coastguard - not NGOs or MSF.
Whether NGO vessels running dedicated search and rescue operations are present or not, people will continue to come in large numbers. What the presence of NGO search and rescue vessels has done is lessen the burden on commercial ships who were struggling with nearly 25% of all rescues back in 2014, leading the International Chamber of Shipping to put pressure on European governments to do more to meet their obligations, stating “the continuing reliance on merchant ships to perform a role which is the proper responsibility of governments is either acceptable or sustainable.”
Humanitarian organisations carrying out search and rescue at sea are saving tens of thousands of people from drowning every year.
Humanitarian action is not the cause of this crisis but is a response to it.
Libya is not a safe place so people rescued at sea cannot be returned there. Boats that have rescued people at sea are legally obliged to take them to a place of safety. MSF works in strict coordination with the Italian Coast Guard, under the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, that indicates the safest port of disembarkation which is generally in Italy.
Libya is not a safe place. The country remains fragmented by conflicts with fighting ongoing in several parts, there is insecurity, economic collapse and a breakdown of law and order. Refugees and asylum-seekers cannot receive protection due to the lack of a functioning asylum system, the limited role of UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the fact that Libya is not a party to the Refugee Convention.
Nearly all refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers we meet on the Mediterranean have been exposed to an alarming level of violence and exploitation while in Libya: kidnap for ransom, forced labour, sexual violence and forced prostitution, being held in captivity or detained against their will. It is not uncommon to see women pregnant as a result of rape, violence-related injuries: broken bones, infected wounds and old scars from beatings and abuse. We cannot return people to a place where they are at risk of harm.
MSF does not choose where to disembark, but works in strict coordination with the Italian Coast Guard’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre that indicates the safest disembarkation port. Tunisia, which is still working out an asylum policy, is not an option. Intercepting people in the Mediterranean Sea and making them apply for EU asylum in Tunisia or elsewhere would mark a major policy shift and likely restrict an asylum seeker's access to basic rights like legal representation and the right to appeal.
Malta didn’t ratify the amendments to the SAR and SOLAS convention made in 2004 that specify that “the responsibility to provide a place of safety, or to ensure that a place of safety is provided, falls on the Contracting Government responsible for the search and rescue region in which the survivors were recovered.” Based on this, Italian ports are considered the safest destination for rescues performed on the Central Mediterranean Sea.
All rescues in the Mediterranean are completed by MSF in full accordance with the law of the sea, the SOLAS convention as well as Italian and European laws and are coordinated through the Italian Coast Guard’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome, who determine when and how MSF can respond to vessels in distress, as well as where those rescued are disembarked by our teams at sea. Every man, woman and child rescued by MSF is met at port by Italian and EU border guards.
As a humanitarian organization we clarify that the purpose of our activities and efforts at sea are only and exclusively aimed at saving lives.
The reason the smugglers’ business model exists is in part because the European Union does not offer any safe and legal alternatives for refugees and migrants who are looking for safety in Europe. Addressing this would be the most effective way to stamp out smuggling networks and stop unnecessary deaths at sea.
It is not MSF’s role to police international waters or to investigate smuggling networks. We are doctors, not police and we are present on the Mediterranean to save lives.
MSF boats are positioned in international waters, around 12 to 25 nautical miles from the Libyan coast because this is the location from where most distress calls are received. They look out for boats in distress using binoculars and respond to directions from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome in the event of an SOS call. In line with international maritime law, all rescue operations at sea happen under the coordination of an MRCC (in this case the Italian Coast Guard Center for the Coordination of Rescue on Sea). Italian law states that not answering an SOS call from a boat in distress is an omission of rescue subject to a penalty of one to five years of detention.
If deemed necessary to save lives, MSF boats have approached the limit of international waters, foreseen by law, at 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. Entering Libyan territorial waters is highly exceptional. There were a few occasions in 2016 when MSF – with the explicit authorization of the relevant Libyan and Italian authorities – assisted in rescues 11.5 nautical miles from the coast.
MSF search and rescue boats do not receive alerts or distress calls from smugglers. If a boat in distress is spotted by one of our boats, we inform the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome which is responsible for coordinating the rescue. The MRCC, under international law, decides which ships in the area are best positioned to assist (this includes all vessels: the Italian Coast Guard, Italian navy ships, Frontex, Eunavfor Med, NGOs and commercial ships.
In 2016 the 1,05 % of our funds was dedicated to Search and Rescue operations in the Mediteranean sea. All information about our finances is public, certified and available on MSF websites. Since June 2016, MSF no longer accepts funds from the European Union and Member States, in opposition to their damaging deterrence policies and continued attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores. More info>>