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?

MSF is relaunching lifesaving search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean, in order to keep saving lives at this deadly sea border and to highlight the human toll of the reckless European policies. 

Ensuring that no one dies at sea is a state responsibility. Our return at sea is a litmus test for states failure. As states abdicate their responsibility for a proactive search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, NGOs are left to fill a crucial gap. Since the beginning of the year at least 630 people are confirmed to have died attempting to cross the central Mediterranean. The real number of fatalities is however likely to be much higher, due to unreported and “invisible” shipwrecks.


Where do we do Search and Rescue?

All rescues occur in international waters in the central Mediterranean between Libya, Malta, and Italy where the majority of distress events occur. We normally patrol between 24-40 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. SEE ON MAP >>

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, arbitrary detention and exploitation experienced in Libya at the hands of militias, smuggling networks, criminal gangs and private individuals. Many of the people we rescue present international protection needs and extra vulnerabilities such as unaccompanied minors, single women, pregnant women, people with disabilities, severe medical cases and victims of torture, sexual violence, human trafficking and/or a shipwreck.

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. Our doctors regularly treat fuel burns, resulting from the prolonged exposure of the skin to a toxic mixture of fuel and salty water in overcrowded boats. Medics are also treating respiratory tract infections, skin diseases, general body pain and other minor complaints. 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. For the most severe medical cases, medical evacuation is possible in coordination with the relevant maritime authorities via helicopter or speedboat.   


What are we treating?

Our psychological care

Psychological first aid is provided by MSF medical staff and trained cultural mediators on board. During 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, both women and men, are victims of sexual violence. They have had to leave everything behind and many of them have watched their families, friends and people they travelled with die at sea or in the desert.

How do we do Search and Rescue?

MSF operates its own ship, the Geo Barents, to save lives and provide emergency medical care to rescued people, making survivors' voices the main witnesses to the world's deadliest migration route. On board an MSF team of 20 people and 12 crew members.

The operations take place in international waters, north of Libya and south of Malta and Italy.

How do we finance our Search and Rescue operations?

MSF is an independent medical humanitarian organisation and our funding relies largely on individuals donating small amounts. This helps to ensure our operational independence and flexibility to respond at a moment's notice to the most urgent crises, providing medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare. Since June 2016, MSF has not accepted funds from the European Union and Member States in opposition to their damaging deterrence policies on immigration. The cost to operate our SAR activities this year represents around 0.14% of the money spent on MSF projects in 70+ countries around the world in 2018. More info>> 

People assisted at sea since 2015

Source: MSF - Data updated on 12/06/2021 -
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

Geo Barents - 2021

The M/V Geo Barents is sailing under the Norwegian flag. The ship’s overall length is 76.95 metres long. It has two decks for survivors; one for men and one for women and children. There is a clinic, a midwife’s room, and an observation room for all the medical activities. The ship has two fast rescue boats to launch during rescue activities.


Sea Watch 4 (with Sea Watch)- 2020

The Sea-Watch 4 is a German-flagged ship that used to be an oceanographic research vessel called Poseidon, and was bought in by Sea-Watch and the United4Rescue coalition in February. It has since been refitted for search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean Sea. It is 60.8 meters long and was originally built in 1976.

Ocean Viking (with SOS Méditerranée)- 2019

Ocean Viking operated under the flag of Norway. It is 69 metres in length and 15.5 metres long. It was 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 ship could take up to 200 survivors on board.

Aquarius (with SOS Méditerranée)- 2016/2018

The Aquarius operated under the flag of Gibraltar. On board there were three different crews: the nautical and technical crew, the rescue crew from Sos Méditerranée and the medical crew from MSF. It had the capacity to take on board up to 500 rescued people. 

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.