TEN THINGS YOU
NEED TO KNOW
In 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) had teams on board three boats: the Dignity I, Bourbon Argos and the MV Aquarius (run in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE).
From the beginning of operations in April until 29 November, these three teams directly rescued 19,708 people from overcrowded boats and assisted a further 7,117 people with safe transfer to Italy and medical care.
At least one in nine of those rescued on the Mediterranean were helped by our teams.
This listicle provides, among other things, an overview of MSF’s figures and a brief analysis on aspects such as the poorer quality of the boats seen this year, the new and deadly tactics of smugglers, the large number of unaccompanied children that have been rescued and the conclusions drawn from the testimonies gathered of the nightmarish transit through Libya.
Since 1 January, at least 4,690 men, women and children have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
That’s nearly 1,000 more than in all of 2015 and still with some weeks left to go.
This is not due to a significant increase in overall arrivals but instead an increase in mortality in the deadly stretch of water between Libya and Italy. In 2016 around one in 41 people who attempted to flee Libya by boat, died trying.
Despite the shocking figures and the immense loss of life, the European response in the central Mediterranean has been to declare “war on smugglers.”
The focus has been on deterrence measures, and the externalisation of borders, rather than on saving lives and enabling a safe passage into the EU.
This has only served to force smugglers to adapt their tactics and operate in an even more dangerous way, in order to avoid border controls and in turn claimed lives.
In 2016, MSF teams rescued people from 134 extremely poor quality rubber boats, and 19 wooden boats. Our teams also recovered the bodies of those for whom rescue came too late.
The large wooden boats of 2014 and 2015 are all but gone and have been replaced by cheap, single-use inflatables.
The smugglers assume these will be intercepted at some point by the search and destroy operations launched by the international military in the high seas.
These shockingly low quality boats have led to tragedy after tragedy.
Our teams have recovered the bodies of people who have asphyxiated, crushed by the weight of hundreds of others in the dinghy.
There are also those who drowned in the bottom of a boat, in a toxic mix of sea water and gasoline.
Our teams have seen boats capsize after spending hours or even days floating aimlessly without a motor.
Usually, motors are snatched by smugglers or other criminals, well before rescue is possible.
Those we rescued have told us told us they were kept in caves, ditches or holes in the ground for days or even weeks before being forced on a boat and sent out to sea.
In contrast to last year, we have seen fewer people equipped with life jackets, food, water and other supplies for the journey.
Sometimes there is not even a sufficient amount of fuel.
We’ve seen rescues come in waves, and at all hours of the day or night.
Smugglers are sending people out in large flotillas at odd hours, in the hope they will escape the mechanism of control, dissuasion and interception imposed by restrictive policies.
The thought is if some are captured, the majority will get through and be rescued.
Precarious night rescues have become more frequent, as have days where a single rescue vessel has had to respond more than 10 distress calls in a 24 hour period.
Sixteen percent of arrivals to Italy are children, 88 percent of whom are unaccompanied.
One tiny family rescued by the Aquarius was headed by a 10-year-old boy, travelling alone with his siblings.
All of them were young enough to still be in nappies.
Some babies born at sea are very much wanted, and come simply at a difficult time. Many others are the result of rape in Libya, on the road, or in the countries of origin.
Many women we rescue, especially those travelling alone recount horrific stories of rape and sexual abuse in Libya.
Others are too traumatised and terrified to disclose what they have been through to our staff, in the short amount of time we spend with them on board.
The threat of rape is so well known, that some women opt to have long term contraceptive implants put in their arm before they travel. This is to ensure they do not become pregnant.
In 2016, four babies were born on MSF’s rescue boats.
The fact they were rescued in time is nothing short of miraculous. With skilled midwives on board, they were able to get the help they needed.
If their labour had started earlier, or had they been rescued by merchant ships without proper medics, the outcome could have been disastrous for both mother and child.
Let’s make this point clear, MSF are not people smugglers nor are we an anti-smuggling operation!
We're in the Mediterranean to save lives: pure and simple.
© Francesco Zizola/NOOR
Smugglers are exploiting some of the most vulnerable people in the world for profit.
Their business model exists in part due to the lack of any safe and legal alternatives for people to be able to reach Europe.
© Christophe Stramba-Badiali/Haytham Pictures
The instability and economic crisis in Libya is also a major factor in the proliferation of smuggling networks.
Each and every person we rescue has a story of hardship.
Whilst women and children have very specific vulnerabilities that need special care and attention, men too have weaknesses that are often more difficult to see.
Some flee wars they want no part in. Others are escaping torture, forced conscription and mass human rights violations.
Many men face discrimination based on their sexuality, violence, persecution, extreme poverty and destitution.
Their journey of suffering begins in countries that range from as far as Pakistan, to countries across sub-Saharan Africa such as Nigeria or Gambia.
Others originate from the horn of Africa, especially Eritrea, as well as the Middle East, ravaged by years of tension and instability.
The vast majority of refugees and other migrants have sought refuge or employment in their own region of the world.
However, combined they provide refuge for more than half of the world’s refugees.
Europe has only received a tiny percentage of the world’s refugees.
Yet it continues to focus on creative ways to keep refugees and migrants away, rather than on taking in those in need.
Refugees and migrants in Libya suffer widespread violence and mistreatment, driving them out of the country and onto the boats.
According to people interviewed by our teams, men, women and, increasingly unaccompanied children (some as young as eight years old) living or transiting through Libya are suffering abuse.
This is at the hands of smugglers, armed groups and private individuals who exploit the desperation of those fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty.
The reported abuses which people have experienced include being subjected to violence (including sexual violence), kidnapping, arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions, and torture.
There have also been reports of ill-treatment, financial exploitation and forced labour.
Preventing people from leaving Libya condemns them to further ill-treatment and physical, sexual, financial and psychological abuse at the hands of smugglers.
The Libyan Coast Guard is expected, according to the training plan initiated by the European Union, to play a key role in future policies of containment within Libyan territory.
It will carry out interception, search, rescue and return operations in Libyan waters.
Our experience shows that intercepting overcrowded and unseaworthy boats can be extremely dangerous in this context, exacerbating the risks faced by those desperate to reach a place of safety.
Those fleeing Libya must be rescued in a safe and calm manner and brought to a port of safety.
There they can receive assistance, claim asylum and other forms of protection.
The current situation in Libya means it cannot be considered a safe port of disembarkation.