Onboard the Bourbon Argos: The Médecins Sans Frontières Search and Rescue Operation

The Mediterranean Sea, and in particular, the crossing from North Africa, has always been one of the most dangerous parts of the journey for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who risk everything in their desperate bid to reach Europe and a better life. After the Lampedusa boat tragedy of October 3, 2013 in which 366 people lost their lives, the Italian government established Operation Mare Nostrum to increase sea patrols and help avoid further tragedies. The operation ended in 2014 for economic reasons and was replaced by Operation Triton, which was managed by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the member states of the European Union (Frontex). Unfortunately, Operation Triton was more limited in its scope and budget than the one it replaced. Moreover, the end of Mare Nostrum coincided with an increase in the number of people trying to reach Europe and deaths on the Mediterranean began to increase. According to the International Organization for Migration, in April 2015 alone 1,244 migrants lost their lives while crossing the Mediterranean.

Frustrated by insufficient action from the EU, in May 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or “Doctors without Borders”), launched a ship, the Bourbon Argos, as an additional search and rescue vessel for activities in the Mediterranean Sea. Specially adapted for search and rescue operations and able to maneuver quickly to respond to calls of distress, the boat is specially equipped and has the capacity to rescue 300–350 individuals at a time. The team on board includes medical staff and experienced search and rescue crew. “With the decision by the EU and Italy not to continue Mare Nostrum at the time more people than ever were reaching their shores, we could not wait on EU shores to see thousands more people die,” MSF declared.

These images were taken aboard the Bourbon Argos on November 13, 2015 and close to the Libyan coast. During the operation 93 migrants of different nationalities, including 31 Nigerians, were rescued from their dinghy by the MSF.

Also by Alessandro Penso: “Passage Through the Balkans

Recommended citation: Penso, Alessandro. “Onboard the Bourbon Argos: The Médecins Sans Frontières Search and Rescue Operation.” Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016).

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Alessandro Penso is a photographer deeply committed to matters of social concern. In recent years he has focused on immigration across the Mediterranean. His work has won several international awards, including Project Launch Award (2011), Terry O’ Neill TAG Award (2012), 1st General News of World Press Photo (2014), Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund (2014), and Burn Emerging Photographer Fund (2014). Alessandro is keenly aware that the difficult social and economic conditions in Mediterranean countries are providing an outlet for the phenomena of cultural closure, xenophobia, and violence; in turn, they represent an insurmountable obstacle to the migrants’ enjoyment of even the most basic human rights. In 2012 he witnessed a brutal attack on a group of migrants in Corinth, Greece, during which one young man, Mostafa, was hit by a car. This experience has further motivated Alessandro to continue his work on immigration across the Mediterranean in an effort to raise awareness of xenophobia and to help combat racially-motivated violence. He hopes his work will also help fight the dehumanization and stereotyping of migrants that takes place in public discussion, often in order to score political gains. Alessandro’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Stern Magazine, The Guardian, BBC, New York Times, Businessweek, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Human Rights Watch, L’Espresso, Internazionale, Repubblica, Vanity Fair Italia, and El Periodico.