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10 things you need to know about the Mediterranean Crisis

02 Dec 2016

In 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières 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. 

The MSF team carries a corpse to the morgue aboard the Bourbon Argos. © Borja Ruiz Rodriguez / MSF

2016 is already the deadliest year on record and it’s not even over yet

Since 1 January, at least 4,690 men, women and children have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. That’s nearly 1,000 more than in all of 2015 and still with some weeks left to go. This is due to a significant increase in mortality as around 1 in 41 people who attempted to flee Libya by boat, died trying.  Despite the shocking figures and the immense loss of life the European response in the Central Mediterranean has been to declare “war on smugglers” and focus on deterrence measures and the externalization of borders, rather than on saving lives and enabling a safe passage into the EU. 

On 8 June three boats containing approximately 150 people each were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Bourbon Argos and taken to Sicily, Italy. © Sara Creta / MSF

Men, women and children are being packed into even poorer quality boats

In 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières teams rescued people from 134 extremely poor quality rubber boats, and 19 wooden boats. The large wooden boats of 2014 and 2015 are all but gone and have been replaced by cheap, single-use inflatables that the smugglers assume will be intercepted at some point by the search and destroy operations launched by the international military in the high seas. These shockingly low quality boats have led to tragedy after tragedy with our teams recovering the bodies of people who have asphyxiated, crushed by the weight of hundreds of others in the dinghy. Or those who drowned in the bottom of a boat in a toxic mix of sea water and gasoline.

A rescue of 700 people aboard an overcrowded wooden boat in the Central Mediterranean Sea. © Maria Carla Giugliano / MSF

Smugglers are more ruthless than ever

People we’ve rescued have told us told us they were kept in caves, ditches or holes in the ground for days or even weeks before being forced on a boat and sent out to sea. We’ve heard stories of executions, horrific ill-treatment and sexual abuse which in some cases amounted to torture. We have seen fewer people equipped with life jackets, food, water and other supplies for the journey or even with a sufficient amount of fuel. We’ve seen rescues come in waves and at all hours of the day or night. Smugglers are sending people out in large flotillas at odd hours in the hope they will escape the mechanism of control, dissuasion and interception imposed by restrictive policies or that even if some are captured, the majority will get through and be rescued. 

© Fabian Mondl / MSF

Large numbers of unaccompanied kids are braving the sea alone

16% of arrivals to Italy are children, 88% of those are unaccompanied. One family rescued by the Aquarius was headed by a 10yo boy, travelling alone with his siblings, all of whom were young enough to still be in nappies. 

On 12 September a healthy baby boy was born on board MV Aquarius, to Nigerian parents who named him Newman Otas. Mother Faith recounts “I was very stressed on the rubber boat, sitting on the floor of the boat with the other women and children. Panicking that I would go into labor. I could feel my baby moving, he would move down and then move back up again. I had been having contractions for three days.” MSF Midwife Jonquil Nicholl delivered the baby “A very normal birth in dangerously abnormal conditions. I am filled with horror at the thought of what would have happened if this baby had arrived 24 hours earlier. And 48 hours previously they were waiting on a beach in Libya not knowing what was ahead of them. How can this still this still happen in 2016? That families, vulnerable people, pregnant women, tiny babies and unborn babies are forced to risk their lives in the Mediterranean Sea when they should be receiving assistance and protection.” © Alva White / MSF

Many women we rescue are pregnant, many of the pregnancies are a result of rape

Some of the babies are very much wanted and come simply at a difficult time, whilst many others are the result of rape in Libya, on the road, or in the countries of origin. Many women we rescue, especially those travelling alone recount horrific stories of rape and sexual abuse in Libya. The threat of rape is so well known in fact 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 our rescue boats. It’s awful to think what would have happened if their labour had started earlier or had they been rescued by merchant ships without proper medics.   

© Nicolás Castellano / SER / MSF

MSF is not assisting people smugglers nor are we smugglers ourselves

Let’s make this point clear, Médecins Sans Frontières are not people smugglers nor are we an anti-smuggling operation! We're in the Mediterranean to save lives pure and simple. Smugglers are exploiting some of the most vulnerable people 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 is also a major factor in the proliferation of smuggling networks.


It’s not only women and children who are vulnerable

Each and every person we rescue has a story of hardship and whilst 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. 

Arriving in Europe. © Mohammad Ghannam / MSF

Europe is far from the top destination for the world’s refugees and other migrants

The vast majority of refugees and other migrants have sought refuge or employment in their own region.  According to UNHCR data, none of the top hosting countries for refugees Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad are in Europe but combined they provide refuge for more than half of the world’s refugees. Europe has only received a tiny percentage of the world’s refugees.

Dr Erna Rijnierse onboard the search and rescue vessel MV Aquarius treating violence-related injuries on Anon from Nigeria. © Alva White / MSF

Refugees and migrants endure horrific violence and abuse in Libya

No matter their reasons for being in Libya in the first place, the violence and mistreatment refugees and migrants suffer there mean they simply have to get out. According to the people interviewed by our teams, 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

Refugees, migrants and asylum seekers held in a detention centre in Tripoli, Libya. © Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / MSF

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.  Our experience shows that 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. 


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