Search and Rescue Support in the Mediterranean


In the Mediterranean, the Order of Malta is once again performing its centuries-old mission to assist those in need. Its doctors, nurses and rescuers are helping thousands of women, children and men desperately seeking to escape famines, wars, persecutions and oppression. The trip is dangerous. Fortress Europe asserts that 21,344 migrants have lost their lives at the gates of Europe since 1998, almost all of them in the Mediterranean Sea.

With more than 3,500 volunteers, the Italian Relief Corps (CISOM) has been the Order of Malta’s operative arm in Italy for emergency situations since 1970. The Italian Relief Corps started as a part of the Order in Italy. It is now a Foundation of the Order of Malta with its own board. The Corps is recognized by the Civil Defense authorities in Italy as an official relief agency. It mostly consists of specialized volunteers: nurses, doctors, psychologists, logistics experts, cooks, warehouse workers, electricians, dog trainers, airplane pilots and many others. The Order of Malta’s core principles give their work a vital added value.

The humanitarian emergency on the island of Lampedusa is certainly among the most important permanent rescue activities carried out in recent years. Since 2008 CISOM’s members have been on board the naval units of the Coast Guards and Guardia di Finanza, providing first-aid in the Strait of Sicily.

Volunteers have provided healthcare and assistance to some 9,000 men, women and children. In recent times the situation has also become extremely demanding for the volunteers. Particularly significant were the rescue activities and the assistance provided after the shipwreck on October 3, 2013 a few miles off the coast of Lampedusa. A barge with over 500 migrants sank and only 155 survived.

The situation has deteriorated even more since the end of 2013 because of the Syrian conflict. Refugees are fleeing Africa and the Middle East. The arrival on the Mediterranean coast is the final part of this terrible experience, where the journey on makeshift boats provided by human traffickers is seen as the last attempt to be made in the hope of a better future.

CISOM’s medical and paramedical personnel on board navy vessels offer greater safety during rescues. These crews face great difficulties during the rescue of a boat crammed full of refugees including young children. The smallest accident could turn into tragedy; 90% of the migrants cannot swim. The crew helps the migrants onto the patrol boat and the medical staff assesses their health conditions. Those in need are treated for as long as it takes to reach port. Before arrival, the doctor contacts the medical authorities on shore to arrange the transfer of migrants to the hospitals and hands over the injured to the land teams.

First-aid at sea as part of the search and rescue operation is something new on the European scene. It seems that no other European country involved in the rescue of migrants at sea has applied this model of intervention, which is in the vanguard in professional and humane terms.

Click here to see a video by the Order of Malta’s Italian Relief Corps.