Frequently asked questions

Why do thousands of people continue to make these dangerous journeys?

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, most of the people rescued from this stretch of water have 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 many report witnessing extreme violence against refugees and migrants, including beatings, ill-treatment, exploitation and arbitrary violence. 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.

With or without rescue boats in the Central Mediterranean, people will, and are still trying to, escape Libya in unseaworthy rubber and wooden boats. In view of the serious lack of search and rescue capacity, this tragic loss of life keeps increasing.

Why is MSF still at sea?

The Central Mediterranean remains the world’s deadliest sea border, with at least 2,079 people reported dead or missing in 2023 so far. Not only are European governments turning a blind eye, abandoning people for hours, days and sometimes weeks at sea without assistance, they are they are actively supporting a system that forcibly returns vulnerable people back to Libya.

According to the United Nations, Libya is not a safe place to disembark people rescued at sea. Yet so far this year, more than 10,646 people have been intercepted and forcibly returned to a cycle of endless abuse and arbitrary detention by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard.

As European states are further disengaging from state-led search and rescue naval capacity, as well as increasingly enlisting the Libyan Coast Guard to abdicate their own responsibilities, policies of non-assistance are condemning people to drown. Once again, it is left to NGOs to save lives at sea, and to shine a light on the human toll of the reckless European policies.

Why are people still dying on the Central Mediterranean route?

Since the beginning of 2023, at least 2,079 people have died or went missing while attempting to reach Europe via the central Mediterranean. These are only the officially documented deaths. In reality, we have no idea how many boats overloaded with men, women and children set sail from Libya in the direction of Italy each day and how many of them sink without trace before they reach shores or call for help. Many shipwrecks remain unreported or “invisible”.

Efforts by the European member states to dismantle search and rescue operations, criminalise humanitarian efforts to save lives at sea, and the adoption of migration policies aimed at deterring and containing vulnerable people in Libya at all costs, only resulted in avoidable loss of life at sea. European States and institutions have strengthened their political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard and the system of forced returns to Libya.

NGOs operating search and rescue activities is not a solution to this crisis, but it is an emergency measure that can mitigate the number of deaths. That is why we call for the EU to put in place a dedicated state-led mechanism to rescue people at sea. Priority should be given to the urgency of providing lifesaving assistance and appropriate humanitarian assistance to those who risk their life in search of safety and a better life.

Many of these people come from countries that are not at war. Why are they making this crossing?

The reasons why people leave their home countries are complex, but once at sea in flimsy and overcrowded rubber boats, 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 or country of origin. Whether they are able to stay in Europe or not, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and humanity.

Has MSF noticed a deterioration in the situation for migrants trying to reach EU shores over the past months or so?

It is relevant to flag that, in 2023 so far IOM reported 2,079 people dead or missing in the Central Mediterranean, a number which may well under-represent the real toll of deadly incidents considering that many shipwrecks are unreported. Also in 2023, approx. 10,646 migrants and refugees were intercepted and forcibly returned to detention centres in Libya by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard. In these detention centres, migrants and asylum seekers are arbitrarily detained and suffer ill treatment in inhumane conditions. They are at risk of systematic extortion and abuse, including rape and torture. Several international reports, as well as thousands of accounts by survivors, have documented the heinous treatment suffered by migrants and refugees in Libya. In November 2021, the UN fact-finding mission in Libya found these violations to be crimes against humanity.

Are NGO search and rescue ships stationed in the Mediterranean actually encouraging people to risk their lives at sea?

It is important to emphasise - and this is something that has been clearly evidenced time and time again - that people will flee for their safety regardless of whether civilian search and rescue vessels are operational.

The reality is, even with fewer and fewer humanitarian vessels at sea, people will continue to undertake this deadly sea crossing, regardless of the risks.

Humanitarian organisations carrying out search and rescue at sea are saving hundreds of people from drowning every year.

Humanitarian action is not the cause of this crisis but is a response to it.

Do MSF boats rescue people from near to the Libyan coast?

All rescues occur in international waters in the Central Mediterranean between Libya, Malta, and Italy where the majority of distress cases occur. We normally search for boats in distress in international waters off the Libyan coast.

Do you sometimes enter contiguous zones during search and rescue operations? If yes, Isn’t it a violation of the Libyan jurisdiction?

According to international laws and conventions (UNCLOS, SOLAS, Salvage Conventions), each shipmaster is obligated to render assistance to persons in distress at sea without delay and by any means [UNCLOS Art. 98, SOLAS Regulation 33(1)], regardless the zone where the distress is happening if the aim is to save lives.

Thus, when a ship is conducting search and rescue operations responding to an immediate distress situation, such as saving lives at sea, entering contiguous zones or even territorial waters is never a violation of a State's jurisdiction.

{Extraterritorial applicability of the principle of non-refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement (Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention) is another cardinal principle of international refugee law that we follow when performing SAR operations; it applies also when acting outside the Stage flag territory (including outside its territorial waters) in the context of maritime search and rescue at sea}

Why don’t you take people back to Libya?

International law clearly states that people rescued at sea must be taken to the closest place of safety and a rescue cannot be considered complete until this happens. For rescues that take place in international waters between Libya, Italy, and Malta, the closest places of safety are Italy or Malta. Libya is not considered a safe place of disembarkation for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. International and European bodies, including the UN and EU Commission, have repeatedly confirmed this. From our work providing medical care inside Libyan detention centres, MSF knows this all too well, having witnessed how people are forcibly detained in inhumane conditions and at risk of ill-treatment, sexual violence, and exploitation. Most returned persons end up in Libyan detention centres. Also many of the people we have rescued recount horrific stories of violence, extortion, sexual violence and forced labour in Libya.

Given that Libya is not a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation of those rescued at sea, those on boats in distress should not be intercepted and forcibly brought back to Libya. European institutions and Member States must end their political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard and the system of forced returns to Libya. EU Member States must also urgently investigate any allegations of pushbacks or other unlawful returns.

Why are interceptions increasing in the central Mediterranean?

Interceptions of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean by the Libyan coastguard tripled in 2021 compared to 2020. More than 32,400 migrants were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard in 2021. In 2022, approx. 23,600 migrants were forcibly returned to Libya and already more than 10,600 so far in 2023. 

In 2017, the Italian government signed an EU-backed agreement with the Libyan government, a program to support Libyan border management authorities, SAR activities at sea and at land, as well as law enforcement. Since then, Europe and Italy are providing material and technical assistance to the Libyan coastguard with EU taxpayer’s money, increasing its capacity to patrol the sea and intercept boats in distress, bringing migrants back to Libya. 

Consequently, the EU-funded Libyan coastguard has significantly stepped-up in the number of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers being intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya. This has resulted in severe deterioration of the already-desperate conditions inside Libyan detention centres. Most of these facilities lack ventilation and natural light; some are so overcrowded that up to four people share one square meter of space, forcing people to take shifts to lie down and sleep. People lack consistent access to clean water and hygiene facilities. 

EU support for Libyan maritime surveillance, interceptions and forced returns is unacceptable and must be suspended immediately. 

Would you return people to Tunisia if you were asked so? If no, why wouldn’t you take people to Tunisia?

MSF refers to a ‘place of safety’ as a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate, and where the rescued persons’ safety of life is no longer threatened, the basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met, and the protection needs of survivors can be fulfilled.  

No one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm. This principle, called non-refoulement, applies to all migrants at all times, regardless of nationality or their migration status.   

Tunisia does not yet have a national asylum law and a coherent framework for the protection of migrants. Despite the presence of protection actors such as UNHCR and IOM in the country, a comprehensive overview of the available framework for protection assistance for migrants and refugees is lacking. Thus, MSF cannot ensure that the protection services currently in place have the capacity to meet the medium-to-long-term legal and protection assistance needs of rescued survivors.    

Moreover, survivors rescued at sea by MSF search and rescue vessel Geo Barents after having fled from Tunisia shared harrowing accounts of their humanitarian situation in the North African country. The individual stories survivors have shared give insights into the impact the hostile environment has on people’s lives and safety. 

MSF doesn’t consider Tunisia as a place of safety, as survivors would be exposed to refoulement, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, and not be able to access protection. Vessels that have rescued people in distress at sea should absolutely avoid to returning/disembarking them to Tunisia. 

Are NGOs at sea helping smugglers?

All rescues in the Mediterranean are completed by MSF in full accordance with the law of the sea and the SOLAS convention and under the coordination of the recognised maritime rescue coordination centres. As a humanitarian organization, we clarify that the purpose of our activities and efforts at sea are only and exclusively aimed at rescuing people in distress at sea.

What is your stance on the criminalization of survivors as smugglers?

Men and women, including minors, who attempt to cross the Central Mediterranean are mostly fleeing from violence and inhumane conditions in Libya. As MSF, we observe that all people who take the boats to reach safety, including those steering the boat, are highly vulnerable.
Our long experience in search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean has taught us that some survivors were forced to drive a boat shortly after the moment of departure and often under threat or acts of violence. Likewise, in situations of extreme difficulty due to weather conditions or collective trauma, one of the survivors, even though not having been forced to drive at the point of departure, had to take over and lead the boat as a normal survival reaction. This means that people with less experience end up steering boats and are therefore not traffickers but vulnerable people just like the other passengers.
The conclusion appears to be obvious: what puts vulnerable migrant’s lives at risk is not the person steering the boat across the sea but European migration policies. Instead of criminalizing vulnerable individuals who just try to reach safety, European states should ensure safe and legal pathways. The aggressive behaviour by governments and the judiciary on suspected boat drivers responsible for putting people’s lives at risk is thus unjustified. As MSF, we call for greater efforts to reduce the risks of migrant journeys by creating legal channels of entry rather than criminalizing those who, by driving a boat, try to keep themselves and others safe.

Is MSF involved in legal actions against the government of Italy?

A number of appeals have been lodged in recent months to denounce illegitimate practices of the Italian government:

  • On 22 November 2022, MSF lodged an appeal with the Administrative Court of Lazio against the inter-ministerial decree notified to Geo Barents on 5 November 2022, by which our search and rescue vessel has been prohibited from stopping in national territorial waters ‘beyond the time necessary to provide rescue and assistance operations’ only for some of the survivors indicated by the 'competent Italian authorities'. The Decree made an unlawful and discriminatory selection among survivors, allowing only those considered 'vulnerable' to disembark in violation of international law on sea rescue.

  • On 24 January and 1 February 2023, MSF lodged two additional appeals asking for the annulment of the administrative measures by which we were assigned the ports of Ancona and La Spezia. This measure is part of a new established practice that the government is applying to all search and rescue NGOs vessels and is against international law.

    In June 2023, MSF received the Regional Administrative Court decision to reject the two appeals  asking for the annulment of the administrative measures by which we were assigned distant ports. MSF considers the ruling unfair and will appeal in the subsequent/higher instances.

  • In May 2023, an appeal was lodged at the civil court of Ancona against the detention of Geo Barents based on the fact that the request of Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) data was out of the scope of maritime law, inconsistent with common practice and without valid justification. 

How does the new law by the Italian government 15/2023 impact the operation of sea rescue ships? What will the human cost be if sea rescue is restricted in this way?

The Law 15/2023 reduces rescue capacities at sea and consequently make the central Mediterranean, one of the world’s deadliest migration routes, even more dangerous. The law limits SAR NGO’s capacities to respond to boats in distress and hence the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the central Mediterranean.  

Despite there already being an existing comprehensive legal framework regulating SAR, namely the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention), the Italian Government introduced yet another set of rules, however exclusively targeting civilian SAR vessels. What we fear is that the law will, same as any other measure aimed at restricting life-saving work, not make rescue operations at sea more effective or the crossing any safer but on the contrary will lead to more deaths. 

Among other rules, the Italian Government requests civilian rescue ships to immediately head to Italy after each rescue, whereas these same ships usually carry out multiple rescues over the course of several days. Instructing SAR NGOs to proceed immediately to a port even in case of other unattended distress cases contradicts the captain’s obligation to render immediate assistance to people in distress, as enshrined in the UNCLOS. This element of the law must be seen in the context of the recent policy of the Italian government that we are observing since a couple of months, which is to assign more frequently “distant ports”. These can be up to four days of navigation from the ships’ location by the time of the rescue.  

This is clearly designed to keep rescue vessels out of the area where most distress cases occur for prolonged periods and reduce their ability to assist people in distress. NGOs are already overstretched due to the absence of a state-run SAR operation and the decreased presence of rescue ships will inevitably result in more drowning tragedies.