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'We are not meant to be doing this, we need to do this because people are crossing and dying'

Unless the EU changes its policy approach, migrants will continue “to die and end up in a watery grave in the Mediterranean”, charities have warned.

BACK IN JULY, local fishermen and the Libyan coastguard pulled 18 people from the Mediterranean sea from Nigeria, Ghana and The Gambia. 

The ship had left the Libyan port of Khoms, located east of the capital Tripoli, before it ran into trouble and began to sink.

When the survivors of the shipwreck were asked about their ordeal, they said that at least 57 other migrants were on the boat with them, and were still missing. At least two toddlers were among that number. 

Once rescued, survivors are usually brought back to Libya, and brought to detention centres where there have been documented cases of abuse, torture, disappearances, and exploitation. 

Because of this, many people who are crossing are doing it for the second or third time; an NGO worker says they hear repeatedly that migrants would prefer to take the deadly risk of crossing the Mediterranean than suffer the conditions back in Libya.

Baptiste*, a 24-year-old from Cameroon, his partner Sophie* and their seven-week-old baby were rescued by MSF this year. He told MSF while on board the ship that picked them up from the Mediterranean:

“In 2021, Sophie and I arrived in Libya. I had never seen people behave in such an inhuman way. We have been treated worse than animals. En route, I witnessed violence, sexual violence and group rape. We finally found a hangar in a neighborhood of the capital to live in. We found jobs, and we managed to eat something. These were really hard times, I felt desperately alone. I kept on living because of my family. 

I will always remember the day our child was born, on 6 August. My wife Sophie had to give birth to our baby at “home”, because access to health care doesn’t exist in Libya for black people. We had no other option than give birth at home.

Many who travel have suffered abuses in their home countries, struggled for years travelling across Africa, crossing the desert to reach Libya in the hope of finding work, ending up exposed to abuse or violence, before attempting the journey across the sea.

These journeys are not taken lightly and the numbers remain high. 

life-on-deck-rotation-3 Rescued people on Geo Barent's deck. Source: PABLO GARRIGOS/MSF

Back at the height of migration from areas of conflict to Europe in 2016, military ships – including the Defence Forces’ LÉ Róisín and LÉ Eithne – were assisting stranded boats that smugglers had left stranded in the middle of the sea.

Some argued that rescue missions were aiding the smugglers by encouraging people to cross; others argued back that they can’t leave people to float adrift at sea and die.

This EU mission, called Operation Sofia, was wound up in early 2019 – prompting criticism from 20 Irish organisations, among international organisations and charities.

Several years later, migrants are still making the deadly crossing across the Mediterranean.

“By advocating for better migration management practices,” according to the International Organisation for Migration, “better migration governance and greater solidarity from EU member states, we can come up with a clearer, safe and humane approach to this issue that begins with saving lives at sea.”

“The time for a state-led approach to search and rescue is now, before more innocent lives are lost.”

Europe’s history with the Mediterranean route 

As it stands, the EU has no dedicated search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean to respond to the hundreds of people fleeing conflict to live in the politically-stable European continent.

However, international law obliges states to help people and ships in distress at sea, which must be provided regardless of the persons’ nationality or circumstances.

The boats currently operating in that space are from the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has refused EU funding over its migration policies; other NGOs; and also coastguards, who patrol the waters, but not far out at sea enough to aid stranded migrants.

Added to this, NGOs which operate search and rescue boats in the Mediterranean report being faced with increasingly prohibitive administrative work by coastal EU countries in the past year. 

MSF’s on-shore search-and-rescue representative Frauke Ossig told The Journal that this was happening “at a time when the EU is withdrawing their state responsibilities to search and rescue”. 

The number of people who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe nearly doubled in the first half of 2021 – with over 1,000 people estimated to have lost their lives making the treacherous journey.

Instead of continuing coordinated search and rescue missions, Italy and the European Union had decided that they would finance, train and provide aid to Libya’s coastguard to stop smugglers from taking migrants and refugees in flimsy boats across the Mediterranean to Europe.

But the Libyan coastguard has faced numerous accusations of mistreatment of asylum seekers, and charities and human rights groups have severely criticised the arrangement.

Fiona Finn of Nasc says the EU’s approach to migration is going to cost thousands of lives.

“The EU is funding and ‘upskilling’ the Libyan Navy to basically intercept and stop migrants reaching Europe’s shores. And then you have Frontex: Frontex funding was increased from €118 million in 2019 to €460 million in 2020. So European policy is only going one way.

“When migrants are intercepted in the Mediterranean, they’re forced back to Libya. But the situation in Libya is absolutely horrendous: arbitrary detainments and human rights abuses condemned by UNHCR.

“But yet, Europe sort of turns a blind eye to that. Once they don’t arrive on Europe’s shores seems to be driving political agendas at the moment.

As a result, she says that “people will continue to die and end up in a watery grave in the Mediterranean”.

The Geo Barents is one of the Médecins Sans Frontières Search and Rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean, in the vaccuum left behind by a lack of a centralised search and rescue mission from the European Union. 

Last month, it managed to safely disembark 60 survivors in Sicily. Since May, it has helped rescue 800 people stranded at sea. 

MSF’s on-shore rep Frauke Ossig says that after they are rescued, they coordinate with regional authorities and are obliged to bring the survivors to a “port of safety”, which Ossig says, for MSF “is not Libya”.

Already there have been 70,000 attempted crossings across the Mediterranean – double the numbers there were this time last year. There have also been twice the number of arrivals in Italy, twice the number of deaths, and 24,000 interceptions by the Libyan coastguard, three times the number there were this time last year.

“A lot of people don’t cross for the first time, they might cross for the second, third time. They have experience of the detention centres in Libya when they were intercepted and don’t want to stay there.

“We’ve heard many times people say ‘we decided to give it a try’, and that they would rather die at sea than endure the conditions in Libya.”

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“We operate in that gap left by the European States. From our perspective, it’s not a choice to let people die.”

No one is making an easy choice to go on this route, all of these people are desperate, and it’s not only the stories from being in Libya but in their country of origin. They are all human beings with their own stories, scars on their bodies and their souls. And we need to treat them with dignity.

Inma Vasquez, who has been the representative to the European Union for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for five years, told The Journal that NGOs have come in to replace the state capacity that was rescinded in 2019.

“We are not meant to be doing this, we need to do this because people are crossing and people are dying.”

Vasquez says that commitments made previously by the European Union in relation to irregular migration have not been kept, and that the continuation of violence and trafficking across the Mediterranean shows their plan to invest money in training the Libyan coastguard isn’t working. 

“What we are asking the European Parliament, is they have a role to play in asking Governments and institutions, that there has to be dedicated search and rescue capacity, not restricting the capacity of NGOs’ search and rescue operations, and we asking for humanitarian transfers from Libya to European countries, or other countries.”

“People are trapped in Libya, and because the legal channels they are almost a stop, the only way out is the sea.”

*These names have been changed to protect the identity of the people concerned.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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