One year of operations in the Central Mediterranean have passed by, this time with the Geo Barents – Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) vessel – rescuing 3,138 people and conducting 6,536 medical consultations before disembarking in a place of safety in Europe. Following last week’s tragic rescue, the sad reality at the Southern European border has not changed: the normalization of policies of deterrence and non-assistance at sea, as well as the dismantling of the SAR system in favor of forced returns, continue to generate human suffering and loss of life.
The figures, which represent human lives, are outrageous. Between 2017 and 2021, at least 8,500 people have died or gone missing and 95,000 people have been forcibly returned to Libya, including 32,425 people in 2021 alone – the highest number of forced returns reported to date. In Libya the rescued people face degrading treatment, like extortion, torture and – all too often – death.
The horrors that refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants experience in Libya, whether before their attempt to cross the Central Mediterranean or after having being forcibly returned, are often unimaginable. Based on the testimonies of the people rescued by MSF teams who have found the courage to share their stories, MSF has documented the brutal impact and the harrowing accounts of violence inflicted upon thousands of men, women and children trapped between the sea and Libya.
According to survivors’ testimonies collected on board, 84% of no less than 620 violent events shared by rescued survivors with MSF had occurred in Libya, among which 68% reportedly occurred within the year prior to being rescued. A significant number of these events happened after having been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and subsequently locked up in detention centers. Survivors reported that perpetrators were guards in detention centers (34%), the Libyan coastguard (15%), non-state or military police (11%), and smugglers/traffickers (10%). Our teams also documented significant levels of violence against women and children – 29% of those were minors, the youngest being 8 years old, and 18% of the victims were women.
Since the beginning of the Geo Barents SAR operations in June 2021, we have also continued to witness the normalization of stand-offs at sea and the distress this practice creates. MSF requests for a place of safety to disembark survivors have been systematically ignored or denied by the Maltese authorities, while those to Italian authorities have been met with an ever-increasing delay. Stand-offs at sea not only impede prompt access to a full assessment of medical and protection needs, but also prolong the suffering of the survivors.
Changing this deadly migration policy is not only necessary but also possible. Europe has demonstrated in the context of the crisis in Ukraine that it can implement a humane approach to forced migration. The protection of everyone’s life should apply regardless of race, gender, country of origin, political or religious beliefs, and equal treatment – with respect to their rights and dignity – should be given to those seeking safety at Europe’s door.
MSF has been running SAR activities in the Central Mediterranean since 2015, working on eight different SAR vessels (alone or in partnership with other NGOs). Overall, MSF search and rescue teams in the Central Mediterranean have assisted more than 80,000 people. Geo Barents is MSF’s current chartered search and rescue vessel.
Between June 2021 and May 2022, the ship sailed out 11 times and conducted 47 rescue operations, rescuing 3,138 people and recovering the bodies of a further 10 people who had died in the sea. MSF teams on board conducted 6,536 medical consultations for primary health care, sexual and reproductive health and mental health.
34% of the survivors rescued were children, out of whom 89% were unaccompanied and/or separated from their families. 265 people reported to our teams having suffered some form of violence, torture or ill treatment, and 63 people among them reported having suffered sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.
Our medical and humanitarian teams also recorded 620 incidents of violence perpetrated against or witnessed by the people rescued that included physical assault, torture, forced disappearance, kidnapping, arbitrary arrest and detention mainly in Libya but also during their often-multiple interceptions and forced returns by the Libyan coastguard.