Mediterranean: 11,482 people helped in first 100 days of search and rescue

20 Aug 2015
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In the past 100 days, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has rescued 11,482 people at risk of drowning through search and rescue operations onboard the Bourbon Argos, Dignity I and MY Phoenix (the latter operated in partnership with MOAS) on the Mediterranean.

Since operations began on 2 May, our teams have encountered many boats dangerously close to sinking, where lives have only been saved because the rescue boat was in the right place at the right time.

“When I ask people why they risk their lives in this way, I get the same answer every time,” says Will Turner, MSF Emergency Coordinator on board of the MY Phoenix.

“There is no alternative. These people know the dangers but they take the gamble anyway. They tell us that they would rather drown seeking safety and freedom than stay in their homelands or in Libya where their lives are not worth living.”

"We have no other option"

The majority of people that we have rescued are from countries like Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, Bangladesh, Sudan and Gambia, fleeing wars and oppressive regimes or seeking a better life in Europe.

In the words of Zachariah, an elderly Palestinian man displaced for the third time in his life, most recently by the insecurity in Libya:

“When the situation in Libya worsened, I decided to take my family to Europe but without documents it was impossible to leave. We have all come this way because we have no other option”.

Saving lives on the Mediterranean

Our medics have treated people for many things, from less serious conditions to gunshot wounds, and engine oil- and fuel burns to organ failure.

Lindis Hurum, MSF Emergency Coordinator on board of the Bourbon Argos, said: “Our teams have also encountered boats with people who had already died from dehydration or asphyxiation during the journey.

"To me this suggests that despite the EU response supposedly being ‘bigger and better’ than last year, there are not enough boats available and in the right spot to adequately respond to the needs of those crossing the Mediterranean.”

Search and rescue

Almost all rescues are off the Libyan coast near Tripoli and Zuwara. Our search and rescue vessels patrol these waters, with the sole mission of rescuing people from boats in distress.

This is not the case for many other vessels involved in search and rescue efforts which have other mandates to fulfill and are not stationed in this area unless specifically called upon for an operation by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).

In 2014, commercial vessels carried out 40 percent of all rescues, but recent attacks on commercial ships off the Libyan coast have meant that  captains are now reluctant to enter this area for security reasons.

Legal migration routes needed

“People drown in seconds,” said Will Turner, . “In order to save the most lives, boats need to be focused solely on search and rescue, and be stationed as close to the North African coast as possible.

Lindis Hurum adds: "Search and rescue operations save many lives, but no matter how many rescue boats operate in the Mediterranean Sea, crossing in an overloaded wooden fishing boat or inflatable dinghy will never be safe.

“To stop the needless deaths, the European Union needs to create safe and legal ways for people to reach Europe so that they don’t need to get in these boats in the first place.”

"Nobody risks their life for a bigger TV "

August is expected to be the busiest month on the Mediterranean, as calm seas and warm weather make for the best conditions for crossing.

“For many people in Europe, August is holiday season, a month of well-deserved  time off, ” said Paula Farias, MSF Emergency Coordinator on board the Dignity I.

“But for many people around the world, it's another month of fleeing war, deprivation, danger, hunger and oppression. Nobody risks their life on the Mediterranean for a bigger TV screen".

MSF will continue search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean in the coming months, working to best support those making the dangerous journey across the sea.

Read more about MSF's work on the Mediterranean