MSF rescue ship detained in Italy following threats by Libyan Coast Guard

Press release

22 March 2024

22 March 2024, Rome, ItalyGeo Barents, the search and rescue ship operated by international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has been issued a detention order for 20 days by the Italian authorities for allegedly failing to comply with instructions issued by the Libyan Coast Guard and endangering the lives of survivors during a rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean on 16 March – allegations which MSF strongly denies.

MSF denounces the imposition of sanctions on its ship and Italy’s systematic collusion with the Libyan Coast Guard to prevent people from seeking safety and protection in Europe at all costs.

“Italy’s actions are outrageous,” says Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative. “The very authorities we are accused of disobeying – the Italy-supported Libyan Coast Guard – were the ones who endangered people’s lives that day. Yet we are the ones sanctioned simply for fulfilling our legal duty to save lives at sea.”

On 16 March, an MSF team went to the rescue of 146 people in distress aboard a wooden boat in international waters. In the middle of the rescue, a Libyan Coast Guard patrol vessel – donated to Libya by the Italian government in 2023 – arrived at the scene and attempted to stop the rescue. Members of the Libyan Coast Guard tried to forcibly board one of MSF’s rescue boats and aggressively threatened survivors and MSF staff with arrest and forcible removal to Libya.

For over two hours, the Libyan patrol vessel performed dangerous manoeuvres in an attempt to block the ongoing rescue, risking the lives of dozens of people, including MSF staff. 

“This detention is the latest example of the hypocrisy of the European Union (EU) and its member states, who are doing everything in their power to punish those involved in search and rescue activities, while being themselves complicit in the violent pushbacks of thousands of people to Libya every year,” says Gil. "Time and time again the Italian authorities request us to coordinate rescues with the Libyan Coast Guard, despite knowing full well that Libya is not a place of safety for refugees and migrants and that returning people in distress at sea to Libya is a crime.¹"

The detention of Geo Barents marks the twentieth time that a humanitarian search and rescue ship has been detained since the enforcement of a new Italian law in early 2023 which intentionally targets and obstructs the lifesaving search and rescue activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at sea.

This detention is the latest example of the hypocrisy of the EU and its member states, who are doing everything in their power to punish those involved in search and rescue activities, while being themselves complicit in violent pushbacks to Libya. Juan Matias Gil, MSF SAR representative

“In recent years, NGOs have been harassed and criminalised by European governments, including Italy,” says Gil. “This behaviour is a dirty political tactic to prevent people arriving on European shores at all costs. Geo Barents always operates in accordance with international maritime law. We have appealed this unjust and ultimately dangerous detention in court. Once again, it is the people attempting to flee Libya who pay the final price, as yet another search and rescue ship is stopped from saving lives at sea.”

As well as violating international and European laws, the Italian Law 15/2023, also known as Piantedosi Decree, has exacerbated the already insufficient search and rescue capacity at sea, making the Central Mediterranean – one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes – even more deadly.

MSF calls on the Italian authorities to stop immediately obstructing NGO lifesaving assistance at sea and calls on the EU and its member states to halt all material and financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard and authorities with a track-record of human rights violations.

1. In a recent judgement, the Italian supreme court confirmed that Libya cannot be considered a place of safety and returning people there is a crime. Ansa, 17 February 2023: Handing over migrants to Tripoli a crime - Supreme Court


Background information

On 16 March 2024, MSF teams conducted three different rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea. In the afternoon, following a first rescue of 28 people from a fiberglass boat, the MSF team started to rescue 146 people in distress from a wooden boat. During the rescue operation, the Libyan Coast Guard dangerously interfered and delayed the completion of the rescue. Later that night, MSF teams rescued 75 people from another fiberglass boat that had capsized, plunging about 45 people into the water. All 249 survivors, including a large number of children, disembarked on 20 March in Marina Di Carrara, in the north of Italy.

MSF has been active in search and rescue activities since 2015, working on eight different rescue vessels (alone or in partnership with other NGOs) and rescuing more than 91,000 people. Since launching search and rescue operations on board Geo Barents in May 2021, MSF teams have rescued close to 11,300 people, recovered the bodies of 13 people, and assisted in the delivery of one baby.