People often tell us they had no other option but to undertake the deadly sea crossing to Europe. They tell us they are fleeing violence, war, persecution and poverty in their home countries. Regardless of their country of origin or their reasons for trying to reach European shores, almost everyone rescued from this stretch of water has passed through Libya, where many of them have been exposed to alarming levels of violence and exploitation.
Many of those we have rescued report having directly experienced violence in Libya, while almost all report witnessing extreme violence against refugees and migrants, including beatings, sexual violence and murder. After the traumatizing experience of leaving their home countries, crossing the Sahara and surviving in Libya, there is often no way back and the dangerous sea crossing is one of the only ways to escape..
MSF is relaunching lifesaving search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean, in order to keep saving lives at this world deadliest sea border and to highlight the human toll of the reckless European policies. For the seventh consecutive year, MSF teams are appalled and are urged to relaunch search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean.
This time, MSF is chartering its own ship, the Geo Barents, to save lives and provide emergency medical care to the rescued people, as well as make survivors voices the primary witnesses of the world’s deadliest sea border.
Ensuring that no one dies at sea is a state responsibility. However, as states abdicate their responsibility for a proactive search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, NGOs are left to fill a crucial gap. While there is extremely or nearly no dedicated search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, peoples ’risks of dying while attempting the crossing has only increased. The number of people attempting to escape mostly from Libyan and Tunisian shores by sea in the first four months of 2021 has tripled in comparison to the same period last year, as did the number of deaths and missing persons.
Despite NGOs are saving lives they keep being harassed and criminalised to do so. Legal proceedings were open against humanitarian organisations, included MSF, operating search and rescue in the Mediterranean. To this day, no court has confirmed any wrongdoing from any NGO and judges have systematically recognized NGOs SAR activities’ compliance to law and charges were dropped. But years of criminalization and administrative obstacles to humanitarian vessels affected vital rescue activities and the global capacity to rescue people in distress, limiting the possibility of being rescued for thousands of vulnerable people at sea. (see more detailed answer on Legal cases issue below).
EU member states must end punitive actions against NGOs and stop criminalising humanitarian assistance that complies with international law.
In the first months of 2021 at least 500 people died in the Central Mediterranean. During the first half of 2019, 426 people have died in the attempt to reach Europe through the Central Mediterranean. These are only the officially documented deaths. In reality, we have no idea how many dinghies overloaded with terrified passengers set sail from Libya in the direction of Italy each day and how many of them sink without trace before they reach busy shipping lanes in the Mediterranean or call for help.
Efforts by the European Union to dismantle search and rescue operations, criminalise humanitarian efforts to save lives at sea, and the adoption of migration policies aimed at deterring and containing vulnerable people in Libya at all costs, only resulted in more people drowning and more people suffering or dying in the conflict-ridden Libya. Unscrupulous smuggling networks have been quick to adapt their way of operating, and the crossing by sea has only become even deadlier.
We believe that until safer alternative are provided people will continue to take these dangerous routes and risk their lives. SAR is not a solution to this crisis but it is only an emergency measure that can mitigate the number of deaths. That is why we call EU to put in place a dedicated mechanism to rescue people at sea. Priority should be given to the urgency of providing lifesaving assistance and appropriate humanitarian assistance for those who risk their life in search of safety and a better life.
The reasons why people leave their home countries are complex but once at sea on a flimsy and overcrowded inflatable dinghy, all are vulnerable and need to be rescued and brought to safety. Many people cannot swim and most are not wearing life jackets. It is an imminent life and death situation and the risk of mass drowning is always present.
People do not undertake this journey lightly, people do not risk their own lives and at times the lives of their children if there are easier options available to them. Once out of harm’s way, people should have their medical and protection needs assessed on an individual basis and not depending on their nationality of origin. Whether they are able to stay in Europe or not, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and humanity.
Libya has been categorically defined as unsafe for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It cannot be considered a Place of Safety for disembarkation of people rescued at sea, according to international and maritime law. Yet, so far nearly 7,000* people have been intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya since the beginning of 2021 and nearly 12,000 people last year, by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard (LCG).
As MSF witnessed for years in Libya, migrants and refugees continue to be subjected to ill-treatment, exploitation and arbitrary violence.
MSF has treated numerous violent-related injuries in February and March alone – including fractures, blunt traumas, abrasions, eye injury, gunshot wounds and limb weakness. Many of these injuries were recent, indicating that they had been sustained while inside the detention centres.
Most of the returned persons end up forcibly detained, for an indefinite time, in dangerous detention facilities characterised by physical abuse, sexual violence, exploitation, denial of access to health care and deprivation of basic services as food, water, proper ventilation and light, overcrowding and little opportunity to maintain physical distancing in the context of a global pandemic. Many remain not accounted for.
It is not MSF’s role to police international waters or to investigate smuggling networks. We are doctors, not police and we are present on the Mediterranean to save lives.
All rescues occur in international waters in the central Mediterranean between Libya, Malta, and Italy where the majority of distress events occur. We normally patrol between 24-40 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.
As an emergency medical humanitarian organisation responding to the pandemic in Europe and beyond, MSF understands the serious challenges presented by COVID-19. But safeguarding the wellbeing of those on land and upholding the duty to save lives at sea are not mutually exclusive principles.