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, most of the people rescued from this stretch of water have 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 many report witnessing extreme violence against refugees and migrants, including beatings, ill-treatment, exploitation and arbitrary violence. 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.
With or without rescue boats in the central Mediterranean Sea, people will, and are still trying to, escape Libya in unseaworthy rubber and wooden boats. In view of the serious lack of search and rescue capacity, the continuing loss of life is tragically increasing.
The central Mediterranean remains the world’s deadliest sea border, with at least 800 people reported dead or missing in 2021 so far. Not only are European governments turning a blind eye, abandoning people for hours, days and sometimes weeks at sea without assistance, they are they are actively supporting a system of forced returns of vulnerable people back to Libya.
According to the United Nations, Libya is not a safe place for disembarkation of people rescued at sea. Yet nearly 16,000 people so far have been intercepted and forcibly returned into a cycle of endless abuse and arbitrary detention since the beginning of the year, by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard.
As European states are further disengaging from state-led search and rescue naval capacity, as well as increasingly enlisting the Libyan Coast Guard to abdicate their own responsibilities, policies of non-assistance are condemning people to drown. Once again, it is left to NGOs to save lives at sea, and to shine a light on the human toll of the reckless European policies.
Men, women and children have been left to drift, to dehydrate or to drown, under direct European surveillance, with distress calls delayed, ignored or denied. Those who do not die at sea risk being intercepted off the Libyan coast by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard and forcibly returned to horrific conditions to Libya.
Since the beginning of 2021, at least 800 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 boats overloaded with men, women and even children set sail from Libya in the direction of Italy each day and how many of them sink without trace before they reach shores or call for help. Many shipwrecks remain unreported or “invisible”.
Efforts by the European member states 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 avoidable loss of life at sea. European States and institutions have strengthened their political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard and the system of forced returns to Libya.
NGOs operating search and rescue activities 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 the EU to put in place a dedicated state-led mechanism to rescue people at sea. Priority should be given to the urgency of providing lifesaving assistance and appropriate humanitarian assistance to 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 rubber boats, 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 or country of origin. Whether they are able to stay in Europe or not, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and humanity.
Are NGO search and rescue boats stationed in the Mediterranean actually encouraging people to risk their lives at sea?
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 months of 2021, thousands of vulnerable people have tried to flee Libya in increasing numbers, boarding unsafe boats to attempt the crossing of the central Mediterranean Sea. 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.
Humanitarian organisations carrying out search and rescue at sea are saving hundreds 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 of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. International and European bodies, including the UN and EU Commission, have repeatedly confirmed this. From our work providing medical care in Libyan detention centres, MSF know this all too well, having witnessed how people are trapped and exposed to life-threatening risks such as ill-treatment, sexual violence, exploitation and even death. Most of the returned persons also end up forcibly detained, in these inhumane conditions.
Many of the people we have rescued recount horrific stories of violence, extortion, sexual violence and forced labour in Libya.
Given that Libya is not a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation of those rescued at sea, those on boats in distress should not be intercepted and forcibly brought back to Libya. European institutions and Member States must end their political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard and the system of forced returns to Libya. EU Member States must also urgently investigate any allegations of pushbacks or other unlawful returns.
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). However, since Libyan authorities were pushed to take the responsibility for the coordination of search and rescue in its newly declared search and rescue region, political disputes over ports of disembarkation have become a regular occurrence, leaving ships who have rescued people at sea stranded for days or 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.
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 in international waters off the Libyan coast.
As per our standard operating procedure, as soon as we bring rescued people on board, they will be immediately triaged by the MSF medical team. Anybody with a temperature over 37.5 degrees Celsius will be isolated and flagged for follow-up immediately post-rescue.
In the event we have a symptomatic case, we would immediately isolate the patient in line with established protocols. While continuing to monitor their health status, we would update relevant health authorities, liaising with them at disembarkation to ensure all protective measures are in place to support the health of the patient and prevent contamination.
On board the ship we have implemented prevention and infection control measures including an isolation area in order to limit spreading of COVID-19 amongst rescued people and our teams as much as possible. Our medical team will monitor the rescued people regularly to be able to identify symptomatic cases. We have rapid testing capacity on board which our medical team will be able to use for symptomatic cases.
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.