Italy Detains NGO Doctors Without Borders’ Mediterranean Rescue Vessel

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The Swiss charity group Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) is strongly denying the latest allegations from Italy that its rescue ship the Geo Barents failed to comply with instructions as the organization protests another detainment issue by the Italian Coast Guard. The rescue vessel was ordered held for 20 days after disembarking its latest group of migrants rescued from the Central Mediterranean.

The detention of Geo Barents marks the twentieth time that a humanitarian search and rescue ship has been detained since the enforcement of a new Italian law in early 2023, according to MSF. Italy in 2023 imposed new restrictions on the operations of the rescue vessels, including often ordering them to distant ports for disembarkation and requiring cooperation with the Libyans and others.

According to the group, the Geo Barents (5,000 tons) was operating in the Mediterranean in the middle of March. The vessel registered in Norway has been carrying out rescue missions for MSF since 2021 with the group reporting over 11,300 people saved.

The ship conducted three rescue missions on March 16 starting with coming across a small fiberglass boat overloaded with 28 people in distress. Shortly after that, they came across a wooden boat loaded with 146 people. Determining the boat was in distress the Geo Barents began a rescue mission when they reported the Libyan Coast Guard arrived on scene. They contend the Libyan Coast Guard patrol vessel tried to stop the rescue, attempted to board one of MSF’s rescue boats, and threatened to arrest and take the people being rescued as well as the MSF staff to Libya. The standoff went on for about two hours, but the vessel was able to rescue the 146 people.

Later that night, they found another fiberglass boat with 75 people. The boat had capsized, and 45 people were in the water. The Geo Barents saved those people. With 249 survivors aboard, they were ordered by the Italians to sail to Marina Di Carrara in the north of Italy where the people were disembarked and the detention order issued.

Italy accused the Geo Barents of failing to comply with instructions issued by the Libyan Coast Guard. The detention says the Geo Barents team endangered the lives of the survivors during the rescue operation.

“Italy’s actions are outrageous,” says Juan Matias Gil, MSF search and rescue representative. “The very authorities we are accused of disobeying were the ones who endangered people’s lives that day. Yet we are the ones sanctioned simply for fulfilling our legal duty to save lives at sea.”

MSF responded by accusing the Italian authorities of “systematic collusion” with the Libyan Coast Guard. They are calling on the authorities to immediately stop obstructing NGO lifesaving assistance. The group points out that it has been active in search and rescue activities since 2015 working with a total of eight different rescue vessels and rescuing more than 91,000 people.

The 252-foot vessel has been operational for the group for nearly three years after they took it on charter. The Geo Barents was built on the hull of a fishing traveler and converted in 2007 for geological research. 

The detention of the Geo Barents follows a similar action by Italy earlier in March. The German humanitarian NGO SOS Humanity also denounced a detention order issued on March 4. Their vessel Humanity 1 has just completed its stay in Crotone, Italy. In the past, Italy had detained vessels alleging they were not following orders from the Italian Coast Guard.

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