22 March 2018

Amsterdam – The international humanitarian medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF) calls out Italian and other European governments and condemns all actions which prevent lifesaving rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean and which return people to Libya.

The latest incident in a long series of actions to obstruct Search and Rescue operations

“The recent incident where Italian authorities ordered the seizure of Proactiva’s ship, Open Arms, following the rescue and disembarkation of 216 persons is the latest in a long series of actions, obstructing NGOs that are carrying out lifesaving rescue operations,” declared Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager.

Libya, Mediterranean Sea, Rescue Operation
In a nightmarish day on the Mediterranean, dozens of survivors from a sinking rubber boat were rescued by the Aquarius, a search and rescue vessel run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE. Photo by Laurin Schmid

“We understand that Open Arms rescued people in international waters; in one of the rescues at 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, the Libyan Coastguard threatened the rescue team with violence,” continued Loof. “There’s a disturbing level of cooperation between European governments and the Libyan Coastguard, ranging from training and material support to paving the way for Libyan Coastguards in international waters, aimed at returning people to Libya.”

Criminalisation campaign against NGOs results in reduced Search and Rescue capacity

While the facts around the rescue and the seizure of the ship are yet to be fully established, these actions bear the hallmark of a campaign of criminalisation against NGOs that carry out Search and Rescue operations.

“We are seeing an alarming trend by Italian and other European governments who actively seek to criminalise and block NGOs, including MSF, from conducting Search and Rescue activities in the Central Mediterranean,” said Loof.

At a press conference on Libya, Dr. Joanne Liu, International President of MSF, strongly denounced European complicity in the torture and abuse of those trapped in Libya and those who are returned there after being intercepted at sea by the EU supported Libyan Coast Guard
At a press conference on Libya, Dr. Joanne Liu, International President of MSF, strongly denounced European complicity in the torture and abuse of those trapped in Libya and those who are returned there after being intercepted at sea by the EU supported Libyan Coast Guard. Photo by Lucie Mach

“Since the summer of 2017, Italian authorities, backed by the European Union, have increasingly obstructed NGO operations to save people’s lives at sea; from an ill-conceived code of conduct for NGOs to politically-exploited criminal investigations that feed the suspicious towards NGOs and directly affect their ability to continue their work,” added Loof. “With the recent impounding of Open Arms in Sicily, the Aquarius, jointly operated by SOS Méditerranée and MSF, is now the only Search and Rescue NGO vessel at sea today.”

European policies of deterrence and containment endanger people’s lives

Even as NGOs are obstructed from saving lives at sea or people have no safe route and legal alternative to flee from horrific levels of violence, abuse and exploitation, European governments are enforcing policies of deterrence and containment in Libya.

“Under no circumstance should refugees and migrants be returned to Libya or trapped there. Clearly European governments are not prioritising the safety of these people; rather they are playing a dirty game of politics while people’s lives hang in the balance,” concluded Loof.

Find out more about MSF's work in Libya.