MSF, in collaboration with other organisations, started Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in 2015 in an attempt to reduce loss of life at sea and provide emergency aid to survivors of perilous boat journeys.
Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees and migrants pay large sums of money – sometimes all their life savings – to smugglers in order to reach Europe by sea. The majority travel across the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, a journey that takes between 45 minutes and three hours. Others, however, set off for Italy from Libya, a crossing that can take several days. Shipwrecks are common, especially if weather conditions are poor. The vessels used are mainly small inﬂatable Zodiacs or old, wooden ﬁshing boats and they are overcrowded and often unseaworthy. Migrants and refugees, many of them with no experience of the sea, are frequently left alone on board with no navigation equipment and insufficient fuel. It is little wonder that the vessels often get into trouble soon after setting sail. More than 3,700 people lost their lives at sea in 2015.
MSF SAR operations were initiated following a decision by the EU and Italy in late 2014 to discontinue Mare Nostrum, a large rescue-at-sea operation led by the Italian navy in the Mediterranean that saved over 170,000 lives. In 2015, MSF teams on board three boats patrolling the Mediterranean Sea assisted over 23,000 people in distress in 120 separate rescue missions, either by directly rescuing them or by transferring them from or to other vessels.
MY Phoenix, Bourbon Argos and Dignity I
Between May and September, MSF in partnership with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) conducted SAR operations and post-rescue care in the central Mediterranean, on board the MY Phoenix. MSF and MOAS rescued and helped 6,985 people, the vast majority of them Eritrean. Of the people rescued, 1,646 received medical consultations, and those needing further care, including pregnant women, were referred to Italy’s Ministry of Health upon arrival on shore. A second ship, the Bourbon Argos, operated by an experienced SAR team and 10 MSF staff, had the capacity to carry 700 rescued people to land and had provided medical care for 4,443 people by December. In total 9,560 people have been rescued during eight months at sea. A third ship, the Dignity I, was launched from Barcelona in June, with a crew of 18 people, including medical staff. It had the capacity to transport 300 people to land, and rescued more than 6,000, mostly off the Libyan coast, during its six-month mission.
The deplorable conditions in Libya and on the boats resulted in various medical and humanitarian needs. In addition to medical care, the teams provided food, water, clothing, protection against the elements, and information and reassurance to the people rescued at sea. Common medical complaints included headaches, exhaustion, skin and upper respiratory tract infections, scabies, motion sickness and hypothermia. Some people were dehydrated or suffering from asphyxiation from being crowded together inside wooden boats. Staff also treated chemical burns caused by fuel spills in the boats, and sexually transmitted infections as a result of sexual abuse, including rape.