European governments must come to their senses and end policies which trap extremely vulnerable people in Libya or leave them to die at sea, said Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), as governments gather for the European Council Summit today.
Last week was the deadliest so far this year on the Mediterranean, as at least 220 people drowned. These were avoidable tragedies. European governments have blocked non-governmental search and rescue operations while turning over responsibility for rescues to the Libyan coastguard.
European governments are financing, training and equipping the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats in distress and rethurn them to Libya, where they are held in inhumane conditions. In an unprecedented development, some 2,000 people were returned to Libya over the course of last weekend. Upon arrival, they were sent to arbitrary detention, with no due legal process.
The same European governments that were just a few months ago strongly condemning reports of slave markets in Libya, seem today to have no hesitation in escalating policies that will increase the suffering of people trapped there. People whose only ‘crime’ is that they flee conflict, violence or poverty.
“EU member states are abdicating their responsibilities to save lives and deliberately condemning vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea,” said Karline Kleijer, MSF head of emergencies. “They do this fully aware of the extreme violence and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer in Libya.”
“MSF urges European governments to show some basic decency and remember that we are talking about human lives and human suffering. They can start by committing to search and rescue, and facilitate swift disembarkation in places of safety. This does not mean Libya”.
People trapped in Libyan detention centres are largely without any assistance. Access is severely limited for international humanitarian organisations, including MSF, as well as for the UN, affecting the ability to monitor and provide protection. Over the last month, however, MSF has conducted over 3,300 medical consultations in four detention centres. Medical teams found that the main health issues are linked to poor living conditions, including overcrowding, and lack of sufficient water or sanitation.
Meanwhile, despite the overwhelming need for search and rescue, an orchestrated campaign against non-governmental search and rescue operations is reaching breaking point. Independent search and rescue missions are increasingly obstructed from carrying out rescues in international waters and are denied access to local ports. This weekend the Aquarius was one of the only three dedicated search and rescue vessels in the central Mediterranean.
“Saving lives at sea is not a crime,” continued Kleijer. Yet, the message from European governments is loud and clear: humanitarian assistance is not welcome. Scapegoating NGOs is a tactic to distract from the real issues: lack of solidarity or vision in the EU, and a broken asylum system. These actions block and obstruct us from doing the work EU governments are failing to do, all the while dehumanising people in need. Any deaths caused by this are now at their hands.”
On 9 and 10 June, the Aquarius search and rescue vessel, operated by SOS Méditerranée in partnership with MSF, was denied authorisation to bring people rescued in the Mediterranean ashore in the closest port of safety in Italy.
Over the week 19 to 26 June, as people were drowning or being returned to Libya, 339 others rescued at sea by Operation Lifeline and commercial container ship Maersk were left in limbo for days as they were refused entry to local ports.
On 26 June, in a further unprecedented development, the Maltese authorities refused permission to dock for a routine port stop to both the Aquarius and to the Proactiva rescue ship, Open Arms. The Aquarius is now headed to the port of Marseille, France, once again forced to remain away from the international search and rescue zone and putting lives at risk.