Listen and protect

Since its first operation, SOS MEDITERRANEE, in partnership with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), aims at addressing the needs of survivors in the aftermath of a rescue, particularly in terms of protection. This mission is the logical extension of “duty to assist” principles and international maritime law requirements: a ship which has carried out a rescue represents a first platform to address the medical needs of survivors, to collect their testimony, but also to identify the particularly vulnerable people like survivors of torture and unaccompanied minors. This protection mission is of a special nature given the psychological and physical profile of rescued people following months or years spent in Libya. We take a look back on the protection activities of SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF at sea.

The arrival of survivors on our rescue ship is a first step in the process of identifying the most vulnerable people – those who have been particularly exposed to physical and/or psychological suffering and who therefore need appropriate medical attention and humanitarian assistance. The survivors are “registered” by our medical partner on board, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which allows for the teams to identify the first visible cases of vulnerability and provide a follow-up afterwards (a wristband is given to them for this purpose): minors not accompanied by adults, disabled people… but behind these visible cases lays a multitude of more difficult to perceive vulnerable cases and of often unspeakable stories…

End of February 2019, Channel 4 broadcasted primetime footage of migrants’ living conditions in Libya, particularly of those in the hands of smugglers and traffickers . Viewers discovered unbearable images, taken from social media: women and men are beaten, hung upside down, tied with chains, held at gunpoint.[1]

For two years and a half, these very stories were heard again and again by the teams of SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) aboard the Aquarius. In the middle of a conversation with survivors, everyone would suddenly become a confidant, listening to personal stories that no one could have ever imagined before. So, what do you do with these words, these painful stories, these torture marks on the bodies?

There is a reporting mechanism for particularly vulnerable people on board. Any person, crew members or journalists, who may come into contact with survivors on board, receives trainings adapted to the context in which we operate (“psychological first aid” and “vulnerable persons flagging” trainings). Everyone is thus made aware of the high likelihood of dealing with broken psychological and physical profiles, of how to interact at best with people who are victims of torture, human trafficking and sexual violence. One of the most important things is to stay alert: listening to those who wish to speak, identifying those who remain silent, because this can say something about their experience, while knowing your own “limits” passing on the baton to teammates specialists in humanitarian affairs when the stories are too difficult to hear. All rescuers are therefore aware of the importance of pointing out those who show signs of vulnerability -through the story of their journey- to the MSF staff (to the Humanitarian Affairs Officer, cultural mediators, medical staff). This is for MSF to provide medical support and professional active listening, even for the relatively short duration of the journey to a safe place of disembarkation, and to report particularly vulnerable cases to authorities and organizations specializing in protection upon arrival in ports. These testimonies are collected only on consent of the people and in all confidentiality.

In an interview with SOS MEDITERRANEE, Seraina, a cultural mediator for MSF onboard the Aquarius in 2017, recounts the stories she gathered about Libya: “These people were suffering violence through extortion in detention centers, they were beaten daily, they were treated like animals. They were not well fed too, they had no water to drink, and if so, it was often salt water. (…) Unfortunately, these are widespread and systematic violations [of human rights] […] “.

To ensure protection on board, the MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE teams take turns on deck to provide a presence, assistance and support to the survivors -night and day. Places dedicated to the reception of survivors are divided in such a way as to guarantee the most serenity possible to certain groups of particularly vulnerable people following their journey and crossing. “Very few of the women I spoke to had not been victims of sexual violence or repeated rape,” says Seraina. “Many women had become pregnant as a result of rape. It was particularly difficult to have the women’s testimonies, precisely because it is a very sensitive topic. The rape suffered by men is also a very sensitive subject. Sexual violence was a widespread theme among all the testimonies”.

These traumatic experiences are taken into account in the protective set-up put in place on board the rescue vessel. Women and children sleep in the “shelter”, a room inside the ship in which the midwife is particularly present, available and attentive. As a reminder, the Aquarius has welcomed 4,694 women since its first mission. In 2017 and 2018, an average of 10% of women survivors were pregnant. 6,508 minors have been rescued by the Aquarius rescuers since February 2016. Amongst these, an average of 80% were unaccompanied.

The SOS MEDITERRANEE teams are currently looking for a ship that will be able to accommodate the same set-up to provide protection and active listening to survivors. To continue to save, protect and testify, under the best possible conditions, despite a context at sea that may be adverse.


[1] “Torture and shocking conditions: the human cost of keeping migrants out of Europe“, Television, Channel 4, 25.02.2019.