Despite Italy's new laws, the Geo Barents is still racing to rescue migrants at sea
WARNING: This story contains vulgar language.
It's late January and the Geo Barents, a search and rescue vessel in the Mediterranean Sea operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, has suddenly found itself surrounded by oil platforms.
That means it's close to the Libyan coast, where most migrants leave to cross the sea on their treacherous journey to Europe.
MSF is following a migrant boat in distress, based on aerial details provided by another NGO, Sea-Watch. The migrant vessel appears to have 50 people on board.
But the Libyan Coast Guard — which is partially funded and helped by the European Union (EU), its border agency, Frontex, and Italy — has been following the Geo Barents. And the Libyans manage to intercept the boat first.
The crew of the MSF ship calls the coast guard on the radio.
"Libyan Coast Guard, this is the Geo Barents. There is one person who jumped into the water."
The response from the Libyan military ship is swift and harsh.
"Stay away, daughter of whores! Prostitutes! Stay away from the area or you will be exposed to gunfire."
MSF decides not to intervene, but stays close in case of an emergency.
"So, this is what it is: it's an interception," Ricardo Gatti, a search and rescue (SAR) leader with MSF, tells his team. "We know that this is one of the difficult situations we can face."
It is a typical cat-and-mouse game in the Libyan search and rescue zone of the Mediterranean.
There is always sadness among MSF staff when they lose an opportunity to rescue a boat in distress. In addition to that, Italy has decreed that NGOs can only do one intervention at a time at sea before disembarking migrants, which means others could be stranded at sea.
In the interest of saving lives, MSF is getting used to working with the new decree, even if it sometimes means defying it — as they will over the course of the next day.
A rescue can easily go wrong
During lunchtime on the Geo Barents, a message rings out on everyone's walkie-talkie in the cafeteria: "MSF teams, MSF teams, be ready to intervene!"
The rescue teams haven't totally recovered mentally from the Libyan interception that morning. But this time, there is no way anyone will beat them to the migrant boat.
Gatti tells his teams they are in contact with a rubber boat. This time, there are 75 people on board.
"Sea conditions are good. Visibility is good. Stay calm and focus," he says.
Once Gatti ends his address, both SAR teams run in opposite directions toward their RHIBs (or rigid-hulled inflatable boats). As the smaller vessels are launched at sea, the teams yell "ready" in unison, the sound echoing in the salty air.
The drivers head to the scene at full throttle, but as the RHIBs get closer, something else is also present in the air — the smell of fuel. It's almost unbearable. At the epicentre of this odour are 69 migrants packed on a small boat, including 25 minors and a baby. They look at the MSF teams with a mix of joy and fear.
Team members on the Geo Barents often say that even a normal intervention can easily go wrong. You only need one migrant getting up too fast and the entire rubber boat can capsize, sending the rest of the passengers to almost certain death.
That is why the SAR teams are stressed by the intense smell of fuel, and the fact that the migrants have been sitting in a pond of water and gasoline for who knows how long. Crowd control is, therefore, complicated.
In this case, it's the job of Gerald Karl and Joan Oliva, two leaders on this RHIB. They address the migrants in a mix of English, French and Arabic. "My friends, please, calm down! Sit down!"
The excitement of being saved, combined with the intoxication of inhaling the fuel fumes, increases the euphoria on board. This makes it harder to safely distribute life-jackets and transfer the migrants onto the two RHIBs.
Defying the decree
From start to finish, this mission lasts about an hour. Luckily, no one is lost at sea.
But amid the heady mix of excitement, stress and gasoline fumes, there's a telling gesture. Once seated on the RHIB and on their way to the Geo Barents, many of the migrants take their phones out of a plastic bag to immortalize the moment with a selfie.
Aboubacar, 16, from Guinea, says that when he saw the Geo Barents teams, "I cried a lot. It was as if I had entered heaven. Because I saw a lot of suffering in Libya. There are many people still locked up there. I myself think of my friends who are still there."
"I was very happy, because I did not know that there was a rescue boat looking for people in the Mediterranean Sea," says Al Gassime, 14, also from Guinea. He believes God put the Geo Barents in his path.
After that rescue, the Geo Barents changed course to carry out two other interventions. Then it headed back to the port of La Spezia, near Genoa, in northern Italy, as ordered by Italian authorities after the first rescue.
When the Geo Barents finally arrived at port, it was with 237 migrants — the total from three rescues — rather than the 69 from the first rescue. The rules, however, state that the ship must return to port after every rescue. The authorities at La Spezia were not impressed.
Luckily, all 237 migrants were able to disembark and now wait for their asylum requests to be processed. But some have already left Italy, worried about being stuck there for months.
A political tug-of-war
According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, about 105,000 migrants came through the central Mediterranean route in 2022 — a major increase from 2021, when 67,500 people made the crossing.
Last year alone, at least 2,400 people died or went missing there, says the International Organization For Migration (IOM). It is the deadliest migration route in the world, representing almost half of the more than 50,000 migrants reported missing or dead since 2014.
Last week, tragedy struck even after the risky crossing, when a wooden migrant boat crashed into rocks off the southern coast of Italy, near the resort town of Steccato di Cutro, killing at least 65 people. MSF teams have been providing support to the survivors.
Still, the growing number of migrants has only fuelled xenophobia in countries like Italy. For example, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini banned NGO rescue vessels from Italian waters when he was the country's interior minister in 2019.
The government of Prime Minister Georgia Meloni has responded in similar ways to the crisis, often questioning the role of the NGOs, calling them "taxi drivers of the sea" and suggesting they encourage migration.
Italy's recent decree about dropping migrants off after each intervention is seen as a tactic to prevent NGOs from rescuing people.
Médecins Sans Frontières argues that the ports they were recently assigned are deliberately far from the main rescue zones. The NGO lodged an appeal, asking for the annulment of the administrative measures by which they were assigned the ports of Ancona and La Spezia in January. The two ports are more than a thousand kilometres from the rescue zone.
The Italian government has always said it was rotating the ports of safety to share the load of welcoming migrants across the country. But in mid-February, they again sent the Geo Barents to Ancona.
On Feb. 23, Italian authorities decided to detain the ship for 20 days. The stated reason was that there was missing paperwork from the Geo Barents's landing on Feb. 17. The captain was given a fine of 10,000 euros.
For MSF, international maritime law and the obligation to assist any boat in distress take precedence over Italian decisions.
"In the last year, we have seen different approaches, attitudes and decrees coming from the Italian authorities. But what does not change is our international obligation at sea," said Ricardo Gatti.
At the end of the day, migrants find themselves caught in the middle of these political battles, when all they are looking for is a life away from the conflicts in their countries.
"Some people were kidnapped for the war. My auntie and two of my uncles got into the war. But, I am small, so I ran away," says Tewdros, 24, who two years ago fled the civil strife in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Before being rescued by the Geo Barents, Tewdros was caught by the Libyan authorities four times while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. And each time, he said he was sent back to prison, where he was beaten and where he had to work to buy his freedom.
Most of the migrants I encountered have similar stories about the conditions in Libyan prisons. Indeed, for many, the sea has become a safer haven.
Xavier Savard-Fournier was on board the Geo Barents from Jan. 17 to Jan. 31, as part of a reporting trip funded by the Fonds québécois de journalisme international.