More than 500 lives have been lost so far this year, three times as many as when compared with the same period in 2020.
Safa Msehli, from the UN migration agency IOM, said there is an increasing sense of urgency and that stakeholders must act now. “We are calling on the international community and the EU for a change in approach. It has never been more urgent for political will to come together to enact change,” she added, noting that it is crucial that States redeploy proactive search and rescue capacities or people will continue to die.
Her pleas come after the Ocean Viking, a rescue vessel operated by SOS Mediterranee, came across a capsized dinghy in the Mediterranean, just off the coast of Tripoli, Libya, last week. It is believed to have been carrying 130 men, women and children, who had left Libya with the hope of reaching the shores of the EU.
Between 2014 and the end of 2020, there have been at least 26,872 deaths of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean between North Africa and Libya.
Data from Missingmigrants.iom shows that the majority of the deaths take place between the coast of Libya and Malta. It is not known how many more die in Libya at the hands of militia or so-called “guards”.
The plight of these people has polarised societies in Europe as right-wing populist leaders, and even some of their leftist counterparts, have called for sending asylum seekers back to Libya. The Maltese government has even been implicated in illegal pushbacks.
Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, criticised the government for being “unresponsive to refugees and migrants in distress” and for “jeopardising the right to life of people at sea.”
In her report last week, she highlighted cases where the Maltese authorities had given instructions to private vessels to send “rescued people back to Libya”.
Why do migrants risk it?
Why do thousands of people each year cram themselves into barely seaworthy vessels to make a risky voyage across the sea that could see them either drown or be detained by immigration authorities upon arrival onshore?
Msehli explained that the situation they are fleeing from is often worse than the risks involved in crossing the Mediterranean. “People are continuing to flee poverty, abuse, violence, torture… The fact that people are continuing to risk their lives this way must signal the conditions at home are more perilous than the dangers of the journey.”
She added that those who are intercepted and sent back to Tripoli end up in arbitrary detention for months or even years. “Conditions are dire, migrants are killed, the bad conditions have been documented for years. There is no access to proper meals, food, sanitation and they are at risk of kidnapping, disappearance, their families being extorted, or being used for ransom,” she added.
The Shift spoke with Julia Shaefermeyer, communications officer for SOS Mediterranee, an NGO that conducts search and rescue operations in the region. Having worked collecting testimonies of those saved at sea, she shared them, along with her first-hand account of some of the people she met.
Rape, torture, and being left for dead
“I only escaped because they threw my naked body into a container on the street thinking I was dead.”
These are the words of Angel, a young migrant woman who was imprisoned in Libya. She later managed to escape and make it across the Mediterranean where she was rescued by the Ocean Viking.
Shaefermeyer detailed how the woman had been systematically and brutally raped while she was imprisoned for four months. Her body, she said, was badly injured and covered in cigarette burns inflicted by Libyan guards.
Another woman, Germaine explained how she had been brutally raped in Libya and fell pregnant. She and her fiancé made the decision to keep the child even under difficult circumstances. Sadly, it was not to be because Germaine was beaten so badly by guards in Tripoli that she suffered a miscarriage.
She had boarded a boat pregnant, but it was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Tripoli. Germaine received no treatment but after attempting the crossing again, she was rescued by the Ocean Viking.
“We were able to give her emergency treatment for the miscarriage she suffered, including medication to prevent infection,” Shaefermeyer told The Shift.
One woman who asked to remain anonymous testified that she had given birth via c-section to a boy in Libya. While waiting to board a vessel in Libya, her toddler became startled by the militia with machine guns and slipped away from her side.
When she tried to chase him, the guards stopped her, held a gun to her head and forced her to board the boat without him. She told Shaefermeyer she hopes he will find his way to her sister who she thinks is still somewhere in Tripoli.
Other survivors detailed violence such as being shot from behind while trying to escape and being left for dead, and being kept in basements.
One child explained to Schaefermeyer that he was so desperate to escape captivity that he threw himself from a window, shattering the bones in his legs.
These are just a handful of accounts from one rescue mission.
Hannah, a midwife on board the Ocean Viking, said that despite previously working in South Sudan where rape is used as a weapon in war, she had never seen anything as brutal or widespread as the cases coming out of Libya.
More needs to be done to protect them
Despite these accounts and the thousands who have lost their lives, Malta continues to court a relationship with Libya and to return people to its shores.
The Council of Europe report noted that instead of being cautious of building this relationship, they were actually taking further steps to enhance it.
It also noted there was no transparency around so-called “joint-coordination centres” created via a Memorandum of Understanding between Libya and Malta in 2020. The agreement also failed to provide any safeguards for human rights, yet proposed asking for money from the EU.
The Commissioner said that her call to suspend support to the Libyan Coast Guard impacting on interceptions and returns has not been implemented by Council of Europe Member States, including Malta.
Malta has long been aware of the situation in Libya for those held or returned there. In 2018, the IOM expressed alarm about conditions of asylum seekers in foreign camps, described as “extreme conditions”.
The EU has also spoken out on “inhumane conditions” noting it was against international and European law.
Human rights organisation Aditus warned that the stranded migrants should not be sent back to Libya, where the violence and ongoing human rights violations are well documented:
“Libya is not, and must not be a port of return. We call upon the Member States to support the work of the humanitarian search and rescue vessels, to share responsibility for all asylum seekers entering the EU, regardless of the port of entry, and to enable access to safety and protection throughout the EU.”
Despite these warnings and many more, the Maltese government remains complicit in sending migrants back, facilitating their return, and ignoring or passing the buck in cases where vessels need help. It is under such circumstances that tragedies such as the loss of another 130 lives occur.
The stories of Angel, Germaine, the unnamed mother, and the 130 who died last week are just a handful in a vast ocean of crimes against humanity.