The European migrant crisis, or less precisely European refugee crisis, began in 2015 when rising immigration numbers of illegal foreign migrants arrived in the European Union (EU), travelling across the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean is considered one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes. In 2014, more than 3200 people died in this region. And in 2015, the first four months saw the death of at least 1750 people. At least half of the people travelling on this route are from war-torn countries or those with repressive governments like Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The European Union countries have placed more emphasis on cracking down on smugglers than on saving lives of those at sea.
Since 1 January 2016, 4,690 men, women and children have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. This is a marked increase in the numbers when compared to 2015. And this growth in the death toll is not because the number of migrants has increased, but it is due to the higher risk in the stretch between Italy and Libya. This year at least 1 in 41 people who left Libya by boat died. Even after these deaths, the EU is focussing more on the smugglers and measures to deter the entry rather than providing a safe passage into the EU. This has resulted in bolder and more dangerous ways of smuggling to avoid border control.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without Borders
In 2016, the medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without Borders 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 seven of those rescued on the Mediterranean were helped by Médecins Sans Frontières teams.
What has been the work of MSF?
Men, women and children are being packed into even poorer quality boats:
In 2016, MSF teams rescued people from 134 extremely poor quality rubber boats, and 19 wooden boats. It also recovered the bodies of those for whom rescue came too late. The smugglers have started using very cheap quality, single-use inflatable boats to ferry the people because they assume that these boats will be captured or destroyed by the international military. They are overcrowded and ill-equipped to handle the huge numbers of people being carried to the other end of the sea. The MSF has recovered bodies of people who died due to asphyxiation or drowned in the bottom of a boat in a toxic mix of sea water and gasoline.
Smugglers are more ruthless than ever
The smugglers snatched away motors of the boats. The MSF teams have seen boats capsize after spending hours or even days floating aimlessly without a motor.
Horrifying stories of torture have emerged from those rescued. The migrants were kept in caves, holed up in ditches in the ground, executed mercilessly, and raped and tortured.
The silver lining in this dark cloud is that there are better-equipped rescue boats with life jackets, food, water, other supplies. The rescue teams are also coming at all hours of the day and the night.
Large numbers of unaccompanied kids are braving the sea alone
16% of arrivals to Italy are children, 88% of them are unaccompanied. A 10-year-old boy headed one small family rescued by the Aquarius, travelling alone with his siblings, all young enough to be in diapers.
Many pregnant women are also rescued. The pregnancies are because of rape. Some of the babies are very much wanted and came simply at a difficult time, while many others are the result of rape in Libya, on the road, or in the countries of origin. Many women who have been rescued, especially those traveling alone recount horrific stories of rape and sexual abuse in Libya. Many others are too traumatised to disclose what they have been through. 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 to ensure they do not become pregnant. In 2016, four babies were born on MSF’s rescue boats. It is miraculous that they were rescued in time and by boats with skilled midwives on board.
MSF is not assisting people smugglers nor are they smugglers
MSF are not people smugglers nor is it an anti-smuggling operation. They’re in the Mediterranean to save lives. Smugglers are exploiting some of the most vulnerable individuals in the world for profit, and their business model exists in part due to the lack of any safe and legal alternatives for people to be able to reach Europe. The instability and economic crisis in Libya are also a major factor in the proliferation of smuggling networks.
It’s not only women and children who are vulnerable
Each and every person rescued by the MSF has a story of hardship, and while 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 torture, forced conscription and mass human rights violation, others 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, and from the Horn of Africa, especially Eritrea, as well as the Middle East, ravaged by years of tension and instability.
Europe is far from the top destination for the world’s refugees and other migrants
The top host countries for refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad as per UNHCR reports. None of these countries are in Europe. In fact, only a very small percentage of the migrants have moved to European countries. But, the EU still focuses on preventing refugee migration.
Refugees and migrants endure horrific violence and abuse in Libya
According to the people interviewed by MSF, men, women and, increasingly unaccompanied children (some as young as 8 years old) living or transiting through Libya are suffering abuse at the hands of smugglers, armed groups and private individuals who exploit the desperation of those fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty. The abuses reported include being subjected to violence (including sexual violence), kidnapping, arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, financial exploitation and forced labour.
Intercepting boats leaving Libya is not a solution
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 carrying out interception, search, rescue and return operations in Libyan waters. Intercepting overcrowded and unseaworthy boats can be extremely dangerous in this context and can exacerbate 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 where 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.
Dignity I disembarked those rescued during their last rescue of the year on November 14 and Bourbon Argos did the same one week later. Both boats are now on standby during the winter when weather and sea conditions are expected to drastically reduce the number of people leaving Libya for Italy. The Aquarius, run in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE, will be the sole MSF boat present throughout the winter, operating constantly to rescue those braving the incredibly dangerous winter seas. MSF expects to reinforce its search and rescue capacity in March as springtime weather allows more people to cross.
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