'Save lives and do no harm': On board the Geo Barents rescue ship saving migrants at sea

ITV News joined Medecins Sans Frontieres rescue crews as they saved a group of people, including babies and children, packed onboard a flimsy, inflatable boat attempting to make the perilous trip across the Mediterranean Sea to safety. Emma Murphy reports.

From the bridge of the Geo Barents there is only a tiny speck on the horizon visible.

But that tiny speck is of full of people who could be in their final moments of life.

What hope the great hulking frame of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) rescue ship must have offered.

These days the water is mercifully calm. But calm in a ship is different from calm in a tiny boat.

Though the waves of summer are less than those in winter, many boats still disappear. Even so, there has been a huge increase in the numbers setting sail.

The Mediterranean is now the most dangerous migration route in the world.

ITV News filmed as Medecins Sans Frontieres rescue ship, the Geo Barents, saved a boat in the Mediterranean. Credit: ITV News

It’s not known how many have perished, lost forever beneath the water, but at least 28,000 is the recorded figure.

One in six who take the journey are estimated to lose their lives trying. That recorded figure is expected to be woefully lower than the reality.

Charities like Medecins Sans Frontieres are rescuing thousands every year and taking them to safety in Italy.

Their remit: to save lives and do no harm.

Since 2021, the Geo Barents has carried out 125 rescues, saving 8,848 people, and with more than 3,000 of them being this year so far.

There have been 11 fatalities and one birth.

  • 70% of the children rescued are aged 16 to 17

  • 19% are 13 to 15

  • 6% have been aged five to 12

  • 4% one to four

  • 2% under one

Theirs is not to judge the validity of the claims of those they pull from the waters, but to save them from drowning.

They work with the guiding principles of national and international law, which determines fellow sailors must proceed with all possible speed to rescue persons in distress at sea.

But the Italian ports they are now allowed to dock in are further and further from the rescue zone - that means longer travel times and less time to carry out rescues.

It doesn’t take a nautical expert to understand that means more deaths and fewer live arrivals to Europe.

One of the younger passengers rescued by the Geo Barents. Credit: ITV News

MSF estimates every one of the extended journeys they now make costs the equivalent of 30,000 polio vaccines used in other missions around the world.

The Italian authorities, and governments across Europe, view such rescue ships as defacto taxis for those seeking passage.

Those making the journey, the charities as well as academic studies, argue the boats will sail irrespective of whether there is a chance of rescue or not.

Those who were rescued by the Geo Barents were lucky not just to survive but not to be returned to Libya.

Those taken from the boats come from many nations including:

  • 17% Egypt

  • 16% Bangladesh

  • 10% Eritrea

  • 8% Syria

  • 8% Pakistan

  • 5% Ivory Coast

  • 5% Sudan

  • 4% Gambia

  • 4% Mali

Since 2021 the Geo Barents has carried out 125 rescues, saving 8,848 people. Credit: ITV News

The Libyan coastguard, part funded by the EU, rescues those at risk of drowning then takes them back to Libya.

It goes against the right we all have to be taken to place of safety when fleeing violence or persecution.

Refoulement, as the process is known, is against EU and international law.

For many fleeing war, violence, persecution or poverty at home, the waves offer little deterrent.

They have little left to fear because there is little left to lose.

The boat offers freedom and opportunity. A chance to gamble with life to gain life.

Even if, for so many, death is the price of their journey.

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