Central Mediterranean, 9 December 2022 – At 11:31 on Wednesday 7th December, little *Ali entered the world on board the Geo Barents, a search and rescue vessel chartered by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). His mother, Fatima*, gave birth in the small medical clinic on board, after hours of difficult labour. The pain began while she was still aboard the packed and unstable rubber boat she and her three other children had taken across the Mediterranean in search of safety. They were among the 90 survivors rescued by the MSF team on Tuesday 6th December, in international waters near Libya.
Although the delivery went well, the mother and her newborn needed postnatal specialised medical care. The MSF team therefore requested a medical evacuation to the nearest competent authorities, Malta and Italy. Malta’s first proposal was to evacuate Fatima* and Ali* by helicopter without giving any options to the other three children, thus separating the family. In addition to being immoral and increasing the psychological trauma of the family, their separation would have gone against two fundamental and universal human rights: the right to family life and unity together with the principle of the best interest of the child. After hours of negotiations, all the members of the family were finally taken to Lampedusa and then transferred to Sicily, where we hope they will get the appropriate care and protection. Another woman on board, nine months pregnant, also needed immediate medical attention that could not be provided on the ship and was evacuated to Malta the same night. The evacuation of a 14-year-old boy is imminent too.
The proposal from the authorities was troubling on multiple levels.
“Separating the family makes no sense at all and is against the children’s interest. Leaving aside the trauma this decision would have caused, Fatima’s* other three children are under 11 years old and cannot remain unaccompanied either,” says Oscar Schaible, Humanitarian Affairs Officer on Geo Barents. “Family reunification would have been a long administrative process and another difficult experience for them.”
After these intense days of rescues and medical evacuations, the Geo Barents is now heading north to disembark the 249 – soon 248 – children, women and men in a place of safety. Requests for a place of safety have already been sent to Malta, which has not granted them and continues to fail in its duties. The Geo Barents has therefore moved towards the closest subsequent state, Italy, and has started to ask for a port to disembark the survivors. According to the international law and maritime conventions, all rescued people must be disembarked as quickly as possible to a place of safety, a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate, where the survivors’ safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs are respected.
MSF has been active and engaged in search and rescue activities since 2015, working on eight different vessels (alone or in partnership with other NGOs). Our teams have rescued more than 85,000 people. Since launching search and rescue operations on board the Geo Barents in May 2021, MSF has rescued 5,497 people and recovered the bodies of 11 people.