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.
Conflict has started in Libya in April 2019, significantly increasing the risks for people’s lives. The bombing on 2 July, 2019, of the Tajoura detention centre that killed nearly 60 of the refugees and migrants trapped inside, and injured other 70 clearly shows that Libya is not a safe place.
Over the course of nearly three years of operations on board the Aquarius, we rescued people from over 35 countries, including many from Sub-Saharan and Eastern Africa, the Middles East and South Asia. In most cases they had international protection needs and extra vulnerabilities such as unaccompanied minors, single women, pregnant women, people with disabilities, severe medical cases and victims of torture, sexual violence, human trafficking and/or a shipwreck.
In 2018, the majority of people rescued were men – 81% in 2018, with 19% female. Of all those rescued 23% were under the age of 18 years old.
Almost of all rescued people have transited via Libya. They tell our teams about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of smugglers, armed groups and private individuals. The abuses reported include being subjected to violence (including sexual violence), torture and other forms of ill-treatment, financial exploitation and forced labour.
We are responding to the crisis of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. In an unprecedented move, we initiated Search and Rescue activities in 2015 after the Italian Search and Rescue operation called “Mare Nostrum” was terminated. Since then, European governments have progressively dismantled search and rescue operations, criminalised humanitarian efforts to save lives at sea and adopted migration policies aimed at deterring and containing vulnerable people in Libya at all costs. These policies have resulted in the deaths of thousands of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers at sea and in Libya, while those that survive remain trapped in a cycle of abuse.
In during the first 6 months of 2019, for each 10 people who attempt the crossing one has died. As a medical-humanitarian organisation, we believe our presence is needed to save lives, as well as to witness and speak out on the human cost of the inhumane policies and politics at play in the Mediterranean Sea. Speaking out on what we witness is core to MSF’s values, and a fundamental part of what we do in all our projects around the world. Until European governments provide safe and legal ways in which people can seek protection in Europe, thousands will continue to risk their lives because it is their only option.
Since starting activities in 2015, we have known that search and rescue is not a solution, as only safe alternatives can reduce deaths at sea, but it is the only concrete measure that can save lives and contribute to reducing the number of people dying in the short term.
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.
It is important to emphasise - and this is something that has been clearly evidenced time and time again - that people will flee for their safety regardless of whether civilian SAR vessels are operational.
During the first 6 months of 2019, vulnerable people have tried to flee Libya in increasing numbers, with over 8,400 boarding unsafe boats to attempt the crossing in the first six months of the year – over 70% of them in May and June alone. The lack of humanitarian vessels in the central Mediterranean during this period should put to rest the unfounded allegation of our being a ‘pull factor’. The reality is, even with fewer and fewer humanitarian vessels at sea, people with few alternatives will continue to undertake this deadly sea crossing, regardless of the risks. The difference now is people are more likely to die compared to last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
While UNHCR and other organisations (including MSF) have called for the humanitarian evacuation of refugees and migrants from Libya since the start of the conflict in Tripoli, the reality is: for every person evacuated or resettled since the conflict started, as of July 3 nearly four times as many have been forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard.
Humanitarian organisations carrying out search and rescue at sea are saving tens of thousands of people from drowning every year.
Humanitarian action is not the cause of this crisis but is a response to it.
International law clearly states that people rescued at sea must be taken to the closest place of safety and a rescue cannot be considered complete until this happens. For rescues that take place in international waters between Libya, Italy, and Malta, the closest places of safety are Italy or Malta. Libya is not considered a safe place for disembarkation for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, as stated by UNHCR and most recently reiterated by The United Nations Human Rights office (OHCHR) in May 2019 and the Secretary General of the UN after his visit to Tripoli in April 2019. From our work providing medical care in Libyan detention centres, MSF know this all too well, having witnessed how people are trapped in inhumane conditions and vulnerable to abuse, often caught in the crossfire of ongoing conflict.
Many of the people we have rescued recount horrific stories of violence, torture, extortion, sexual violence and forced labour in Libya, as well as arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions. We know that migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers experience alarming levels of violence and exploitation in the country. Under NO circumstance should refugees, asylum seekers and migrants be returned to Libya.
A rescue at sea is not complete until all those on board are disembarked in a place of safety. This means a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate and where the survivors’ safety of life is not threatened, where their basic human needs can be met and from which transportation arrangements can be made for the survivors’ next destination or final destination. This also takes into account the protection of their fundamental rights in compliance with the principle of non-refoulement.
In order to assess whether a place is a safe place of disembarkation, MSF will take into account guidance by UNHCR and other UN entities and consider a number of criteria, including:
To our knowledge, at present Tunisia as well as any other North African country, do not offer these minimum safeguards. This was most recently exemplified by the few cases of people rescued at sea that were eventually disembarked in Tunisia (Sarost 5, Maridive 601). Should the Ocean Viking be instructed to disembark in Tunisia, we would request guarantees that these minimum safeguards are met. If Tunisia were to meet these criteria, in law and in practice, then it could be considered as a place of safety.
All rescues in the Mediterranean are completed by MSF in full accordance with the law of the sea and the SOLAS convention and under the coordination of the recognised maritime rescue coordination centre, which is currently the Libyan Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC). Every man, woman and child rescued by MSF is met at port by Italian and EU border guards. However, since the Libyan JRCC took on the responsibility for the coordination of search and rescue in the international waters between Libya and Italy, political disputes over ports of disembarkation have become a regular occurrence, leaving ships who have rescued people at sea stranded for weeks at a time.
As a humanitarian organization, we clarify that the purpose of our activities and efforts at sea are only and exclusively aimed at saving lives.
The reason the smugglers’ business model exists is in part because the European Union does not offer any safe and legal alternatives for refugees and migrants who are looking for safety in Europe. Addressing this would be the most effective way to stamp out smuggling networks and stop unnecessary deaths at sea.
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.
The ship we operate from is located in international waters, around 24 to 40 nautical miles from the Libyan coast where the largest number of distress situations arise. As an exception, and when requested or authorised by the authorities coordinating the search and rescue operations, we occasionally entered Libyan Territorial Waters in case there was a vessel known to be in distress and with all the necessary authority permissions. In fact, under international maritime laws, it is an obligation that the master of a ship must enter territorial waters when needed to render assistance to people in distress.
Entering Libyan territorial waters is highly exceptional. There were a few occasions in 2016 when MSF – with the explicit authorization of the relevant Libyan and Italian authorities – assisted in rescues 11.5 nautical miles from the coast. Italian law states that not answering an SOS call from a boat in distress is an omission of rescue subject to a penalty of one to five years of detention.
MSF search and rescue boats do not receive alerts or distress calls from smugglers. If a boat in distress is spotted by one of our boats, we inform the relevant authorities coordinating the search and rescue operations which, under international law, decide which ships in the area are best positioned to assist (this includes all vessels: Coast Guard vessels, navy and other military ships, Frontex, NGOs and commercial ships).
MSF is an independent medical humanitarian organisation and our funding relies largely on individuals donating small amounts. This helps to ensure our operational independence and flexibility to respond at a moment's notice to the most urgent crises, including those which are under-reported or neglected. Since June 2016, MSF no longer accepts funds from the European Union and Member States, in opposition to their damaging deterrence policies and continued attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores. The cost to operate our SAR activities this year represents around 0.14% of the money spent on MSF projects in 70+ countries around the world in 2018. More info>>