23/06/2017 8:38 AM IST | Updated 24/09/2018 6:54 PM IST

This Video Shows Why MSF Is Not Exceeding Its Mandate By Carrying Out Search And Rescue Operations

“A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ever since Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors Without Borders) started its search and rescue operations in international waters, many have questioned the organisation's objectives and role. Some have advised MSF to keep working as doctors and not have anything to do with search and rescue operations, others have accused us of befriending smugglers.

In this video, MSF provides a response to these questions and allegations along with explaining why we carry out these operations in the sea.

Every year, thousands of people flee violence, insecurity, and persecution. They attempt a treacherous journey via North Africa and Turkey, in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

And every year, countless lives are lost on these journeys.

"A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea. Faced with thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and crises, Europe has closed its borders, forcing people in search of protection to risk their lives and die at sea. There is no more time to think, these lives must be saved now," says Loris De Filippi president of MSF Italy.

In 2016 alone, 5096 people are thought to have died or gone missing during the crossing.

MSF search and rescue: the facts

MSF search and rescue operations are coordinated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome and comply with the law at all times. In line with international maritime law, all rescue operations at sea happen under the coordination of an MRCC (in this case the Italian Coast Guard Centre for the Coordination of Rescue on Sea).

We felt compelled first and foremost to assist people who were dying in the Mediterranean. We had the means and, for us, ignoring the problem was not an option.

We patrol in international waters at around 25 nautical miles off the coast of Libya during the day, only moving closer to territorial waters if we have been instructed to do so by the MRCC or we become aware of a boat in distress. At night, we operate in international waters at 30 to 35 nautical miles from Libya.

Who is rescued?

Refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are not interchangeable terms. The following is a brief explanation of the very different legal definitions:

  • A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Refugee status is assessed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or a sympathetic state.
  • An asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee and is seeking asylum in another country, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.
  • A migrant is someone who chooses to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families.

As a humanitarian agency involved in search and rescue, MSF does not have a mandate or means to assess the immigration status of the people we assist.

We provide medical care without judgment.

Where are the people rescued at sea taken?

Our primary aim was to prevent loss of life, not to provide transport.

When a situation arose in which we had to intervene, we did so under the direction of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome.

They also decided where those we rescued should disembark, as dictated by the laws of the sea.

As a rule, those we rescued were taken either to reception centres in southern Italy (Sicily) or transferred from search and rescue boats to Italian coast guard vessels.

A compromise to MSF's neutrality?

We felt compelled first and foremost to assist people who were dying in the Mediterranean. We had the means and, for us, ignoring the problem was not an option.

Of course, we are aware that by doing this we are entering a very contentious political debate in Europe. But we believe that inaction cannot be justified on ideological grounds and that, in fact, as a medical organisation that takes its cues from medical ethics, we must take action.

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.

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