Exclusive footage of a rescue mission which saved the lives of more than 100 people in the Mediterranean Sea has been released to The Ferret by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The video shows MSF staff on board a ship called the Geo Barents assisting Libyan refugees stranded after their vessel had ground to a standstill, forcing passengers to spend the night at sea.
The humanitarian ship operated by MSF in the Mediterranean carries out search and rescue missions at sea.
During the mission, search and rescue teams brought survivors into a rescue boat. After medical checks were completed, survivors were housed on the ship’s shelter desk, where they were fed, and later slept.
The crew were alerted to the struggling rubber dinghy – crammed with people who were attempting to escape the north African country – in the early hours of 20 January.
The 109 passengers were located and brought on board the Geo Barents, where a number were treated for mild hypothermia. They were said to be doing well when they were released into the care of Sicilian authorities 12 days later.
The group are among those fleeing Libya, a country where migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees face arbitrary detention. Those under the care of authorities suffer from ill treatment, sexual assault, forced labor, and extortion, according to the Human Rights Watch.
At least 66,770 people used the Mediterranean Sea route in 2021. In December 2021, more than 160 people drowned in two separate shipwrecks off the coast of Libya in one week, bringing the total number of people drowned on the central Mediterranean route to roughly 1,500 people. In 2021, Libyan coastguards captured 32,425 refugees and migrants at sea and returned them to the country.
Hours after the Libyan rescue mission, the Geo Barents brought aboard another 100 survivors from Pakistan, who were crowded on two levels of what appeared to be an unstable wooden boat. By 24 January, three days later, the Geo Barents crew in Italy had requested a port of safety in Italy for a total of 439 people in need of care.
Leo Southall, the deputy search and rescue team leader on Geo Barents, said the ship spends “24 hours a day” searching for any vessels where lives might be in danger. Since 2015 its search and rescue activities have saved more than 80,000 lives.
Rescues can happen at any time of the day or night, with the completion of a mission sometimes taking weeks. Staff take turns to look for boats under stress.
Southall said the number of people needing critical care is linked to the poor quality vessels available to those desperate to escape.
“The sorts of boats people are coming over in are not suitable for any sort of crossing, really,” he added. “They are really flimsy, or usually made with poor construction materials and as quickly or cheaply as possible.
“On top of that, these rubber boats are sometimes loaded with 120 people reliant on very thin inflatable tubes. They’re then pushed out into a port, tasked with an open sea journey of well over 100 miles.
“There’s many reasons why these things go wrong, and we rarely see these rubber type boats arriving safely without help. Quite often, they have already broken or deflated 30 miles from the Libyan coast.”
Finding a safe place for those in need is significantly harder than it used to be, Southall claimed. Libyan authorities can designate a place of safety outside of the country, but the crew often struggles to make contact. In some cases, countries will outright refuse to assist those in need.
“We’re seeing nowadays that there will be quite a long period of time before we are granted the right to disembark,” he explained. “In 2017, this was nearly an immediate process. During the 20 January rescue mission, it took twelve.
“Finding a place of safety as quickly as possible is urgent, especially considering what people have been through. The ship is a very confined space, where we can provide basic medical care.”
The Nationality and Borders Bill
The UK government said the Bill will stop illegal trafficking rings by overhauling the asylum system in “a comprehensive, firm but fair and long-term plan that seeks to address the challenge of illegal migration facilitated by serious organised criminals.”
But critics said the Bill’s proposals, including offshoring those seeking refuge in Rwanda and plans to strip people of their British citizenship without warning, are “a shocking abandonment of legal and moral responsibility.”
On Monday, the Home Office said it would no longer sanction “pushbacks” as part of the bill, in which UK border officials would forcibly redirect vessels carrying people seeking refuge to France.
Sophie McCann, advocacy advisor for MSF, claimed the Bill “is the stuff of nightmares,” and will “have global ramifications”.
“Previous offshoring plans attempted by the Australian government in Nauru showed some of the worst mental health suffering we’ve ever seen among refugees in our fifty years of experience,” she said. “We have already heard reports of refugees in Kent stating they will kill themselves if they are sent to Rwanda.”
“Every asylum-related measure in the Nationality and Borders Bill is designed to punish, penalise or deter refugees coming to the UK,” Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director told The Ferret.
“Shamefully, the government at Westminster has aggressively embarked on preventing Scotland, and the rest of the UK, playing a full and equal part in welcoming refugees.
“That is a shocking abandonment of legal and moral responsibility and threatens to profoundly harm people seeking asylum while perpetuating their vulnerability to exploitation including by criminal gangs.”
Gary Christie, head of policy, communications and communities at the Scottish Refugee Council, said the organisation is “deeply disappointed that MPs voted to keep the cruellest and harshest clauses of the UK Government’s Nationality & Borders Bill last week.”
“This Bill will do nothing to stop people fleeing war, terror and oppression. People will still risk their lives on perilous journeys in search of a safe place to live,” Christie added.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has made clear to the UK Government on a number of occasions the significant concerns we have about their New Plan for Immigration and their Nationality and Borders Bill, and the impact it would have on Scotland as a country of welcome and refuge.
“The UK needs fair and humane asylum and immigration systems and the Nationality and Borders Bill will not achieve the change that is desperately needed to achieve this. This Bill has been rightly condemned by many, and places the UK’s international reputation and international obligations at serious risk and should be reconsidered.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This world-leading Migration and Economic Development Partnership will overhaul our broken asylum system, which is currently costing the UK taxpayer £1.5 billion a year – the highest amount in two decades.
“Under this agreement, Rwanda will process claims in accordance with national and international human rights laws. It means those arriving dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily can be relocated to have their asylum claims considered and, if recognised as refugees, build their lives there.
“The entire government is united in our efforts to prevent these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs exploiting people.
The Home Office added turning boats around “fully complies with both domestic and international law,” but “there are extremely limited circumstances when you can safely turn boats back in the English Channel.”
Photos: Andrea Monrás