Death of 61 people in a shipwreck off Libya is the direct result of Europe’s migration policies

21 November 2023

The death of 61 people, who drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Libyan shores during the night between 14 and 15 December, was a completely preventable tragedy and once again shows the consequences of Europe’s murderous policies of non-assistance and disgraceful outsourcing of border management, says Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). 

“It cannot be accepted, that a boat with 86 people in distress, only 18 nautical miles, less than 45 minutes from the Libyan shores, has resulted in the deaths of 61 people, including children,” says Virginia Mielgo, MSF project coordinator on board the MSF search and rescue ship, Geo Barents. 


“By handing over the responsibility of its borders management to the Libyan Coast Guard, who once again clearly showed their incapacity to coordinate safe search and rescue activities and prevent loss of lives at sea, European governments have rendered themselves complicit in their deaths.” 

Despite alerts to both the Italian, Maltese and Libyan rescue authorities of the perilous situation, it was only after eight hours that a merchant vessel, Vos Triton, eventually arrived around the boat in distress. 

In addition to the insufficient state-led search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean, the absence of NGOs rescue vessels in the area that night is the result of the reckless and constant obstruction of civilian search and rescue work by the Italian authorities over the past year. Two NGO vessels, including Geo Barents, that were in the area where the shipwreck occurred only two days earlier were forced to navigate to faraway ports north to Italy with less than 40 survivors on board each. 

“As we were once again sent to an unnecessary distant port in Genova, with very few people on board, we were forced to follow helplessly as alerts to the authorities went unanswered for hours. Although it was clear that people’s lives were in imminent danger, nothing was done to help until it was too late,” says Mielgo. 

“With this new tragedy, European governments cannot hide anymore from the clear consequences of their inhumane political choices". Virginia Mielgo, MSF project coordinator on board Geo Barents

The 25 survivors of the shipwreck were forcibly sent back to Tripoli, in Libya, where horrific violence and abuses inflicted on migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have been widely documented by MSF and others. A risk that the European authorities were fully aware of when Vos Triton, intervened - the same vessel that has already been accused of illegally pushing back 270 people to Libya in 2021.¹ 

“As soon as we noticed Vos Triton was heading towards Libya, we reached out to them to remind them about the principle of non-refoulment and that disembarking people in Libya would be unlawful,” explains Mielgo. “Hearing a few hours later that not only did this illegal push back take place, but that over 60 people had died during that night was heartbreaking.”  


“With this new tragedy, European governments cannot hide anymore from the clear consequences of their inhumane political choices. A radical change in Europe is needed now to adopt migration policies that save lives instead of sacrificing them,” says Mielgo. 

Already this year, close to 2,300 men, women and children² have died or gone missing while trying to cross the Central Mediterranean to Europe. 


2. Source: IOM, Missing migrant project