MSF has, together with Sea-Watch, been back at sea, on board the Sea-Watch 4 for 11 days now. What we have seen is nothing short of a disgrace.
The situation at sea is dire. In the last 11 days, we have witnessed how European states are condemning people to drown and blocking action to save them.
Nearly 400 people have died in the central Mediterranean Sea in 2020. It’s hard to understand how this can be allowed to happen. But it does.
Just two weeks ago, 45 people lost their lives in a shipwreck. Just a few days ago, people crowded onto a rubber dinghy saw four of their group drown.
Nearly 400 people have been left stranded awaiting a port of safety, some for days, some for weeks. Twenty-seven of these rescued by a commercial ship, the Etienne, which is an oil tanker, on the orders of Malta, have been left to languish for nearly four weeks.
This is the result of deliberate policies to not save lives.
In recent months, despite receiving distress calls from rubber boats in their own search and rescue regions, Malta and Italy have been ignoring calls, and delaying rescues, in areas of the Mediterranean sea that fall under their responsibility. But, they are not the only EU states looking the other way.
The failure of states has forced non-governmental (NGO) to try to fill the gap, setting up search-and-rescue operations. But, thanks to the impounding of ships and unclear administrative blockages, hardly anyone is able to be at sea right now. Currently, only the Sea-Watch 4, the Banksy funded Louise Michel, are the only search-and-rescue vessels active in the central Mediterranean.
The Sea-Watch 4 has 353 people on board, 202 from three rescue operations we carried out between 22-24 August. And the additional 152 people we transferred from the Louise Michel.
We are particularly concerned about children; we have about a hundred unaccompanied minors on board. They are extremely vulnerable and in need of protection.
Our ship is 60 metres long. Some people were rescued 11 days ago. With so many people in such a confined space, tensions run high. You can only imagine how difficult the situation is, especially as we try to implement strict COVID-19 protocols on board.
Many people are highly traumatised. People transferred from the Louise Michel has witnessed four people drowning. Only one body was recovered; the others, like so many thousands before, were lost to the waves.
And then on top of this is the anguish and anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. These states are toying with people’s lives; it is cruel in the extreme.
Alongside seasickness and dehydration and scabies, we see chemical burns. This result from a toxic mix of petrol and seawater. One rescued person, a teenager, was so badly burnt that we had to arrange a medical evacuation.
Our teams are also treating broken limbs and trauma injuries consistent with reports of abuse and torture and ill-treatment in Libya.
We implement strict COVID-19 protocols, so we are paying particular attention to anyone with possible symptoms, such as a cough or high temperature. And ensuring they are isolated. Both the crew and rescued people are vigilantly hand washing and wearing face masks.
It would be unlawful to take people back to Libya. Why? Because Libya is absolutely not a place of safety – this fact has been reiterated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
MSF runs projects in Tripoli, Misrata, Zintan and Beni Walid. In these places, we see the direct impacts of the abuse migrants, refugees and asylum seekers endure not only in detention, but also in the hands of traffickers. This includes torture and other ill-treatment, forced labour, and extortion.
The moral and legal imperative to save lives must prevail. European states must deploy adequate search and rescue capacity at sea and respond to distress calls.
Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, MSF humanitarian affairs advisor
A recent major shipwreck off the Libyan coast, took at least 45 lives. Our teams met some of the survivors, after they were taken back to Libya. Their stories were harrowing.
We fear that the attention that has been paid to the Mediterranean and rescues by NGOs, may provide a smoke screen, a diversionary tactic to focus attention on civilian search and rescue operations.
Why? So that people don’t ask questions about the nearly 8.000 people that have been intercepted and ‘pushed back’ to Libya, by the Libyan Coast Guard since the beginning of the year.
That is the EU supported and trained Libyan Coast Guard.
What is striking is how we once again witness a human-made disaster, a policy-induced one. European states must take responsibility.
Italy and Malta are failing to meet legal obligations to rescue people or to allocate a port of safety and appropriate assistance.
But, let’s also be very clear, the responsibility for this does not rest upon these two countries alone.
Every European state has a role to play; to offer concrete solutions to share the responsibility, and establish an appropriate search-and-rescue mechanism at sea.
In addition to the rescues carried out by the Sea-Watch 4 and the Louise Michel (as well as the Etienne of course) a number of people are managing to arrive by themselves to Lampedusa, and other landing spots in the south of Italy.
European states are toying with the lives of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The moral and legal imperative to save lives must prevail. European states must deploy adequate search and rescue capacity at sea and respond to distress calls. These cruel stand-offs at sea must end. No ifs, no buts. No tossing the ball between states.
This is entirely possible with state led search-and-rescue capacity and cooperation for a predictable and sustainable mechanism to disembark rescued people in the nearest place of safety.