Rescued at Sea, Abandoned on Land: Refugees’ Struggle for Safety in Europe
“As soon as you come close you realize the shocking amount of people who are on the boat. There are not only people on the edge, but others squashed inside and sitting on the floor, who are mostly women and kids.”
In the past week, 455 people have been saved in the Mediterranean by Sea-Watch, a German non-governmental organization (NGO) that conducts rescue operations for migrants and refugees attempting to cross the sea to Europe. A further 236 people were rescued and taken to a port in Sicily at the weekend by a vessel run by SOS Méditerranée. More than half of those given a Place of Safety in Sicily were unaccompanied minors.
Around the same weekend, at least 830 migrants were taken to Libya by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, including 600 on Friday and Saturday. Tens of thousands of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa have been pushed back to Libya with the agreement of European powers since 2018.
Trans-Mediterranean migration has all but disappeared from mainstream news feeds in Europe over the past 12 months. The pandemic, racism, policing, colonial histories, and boiling points across the world – from China, Myanmar, South America, and the Middle East – have been the focal point of indignation over human rights abuse.
Al Bawaba News spoke to three people who have worked on Sea-Watch rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Together they describe a desperate, never-ending attempt to ensure the safety of refugees risking their lives to reach Europe and an environment of dismay to see European countries turning the refugees away.
The mistreatment of migrants seeking to cross into Europe is an ongoing and large-scale example of Europe’s racist and militarized policies towards those it considers unworthy of human rights and dignity. From January to late April this year alone, approximately 20,000 people have entered Europe through sea routes, with a further 1,573 arriving by land. An estimated 750 people are dead or missing from the journey.
By most indicators, there are likely to be more attempts by refugees to cross the Mediterranean in 2021 than last year. In the first quarter of 2021, disembarkations in Italy jumped 170 percent over 2020, as did the total number of deaths at sea.
Migrants stuck on a slowly sinking rubber boat are seen by a Sea-Watch plane (Courtesy of Sea-Watch)
If Sea-Watch can reach a vessel before Libyan authorities, the sight that greets them is often dire.
Mattea Weihe, who began working as a cultural mediator and Arabic translator on rescue missions for Sea-Watch in 2018 and is now the organization’s spokesperson, described to Al Bawaba the situation of people who have spent hours on the Mediterranean awaiting rescue.
“Women and children are often fully covered with fuel burns which is a very specific type of burn.”
“The main type of boat that people are fleeing in are rubber boats, and these are not made to travel the long distance from Libya to Italy. They are very overcrowded, so they are in no sense stable. For us, it’s very clear that it’s a matter of hours until this boat destabilizes. A rubber boat can’t reach the Italian coast. Under international law, every boat that we run into is within the definition of a boat in distress.”
Speaking on her experience helping refugees from their vessels onto Sea-Watch ships, she says “The initial shock was how many people fit on the boats and how much time they spend there, which can be up to 24 or 48 hours.”
Women and children often sit in the middle of the boats as it provides a greater deal of protection from the elements. But the mixture of fuel, water, and bodily fluids which collects in the center leads to severe burns on the skin. “Women and children are often fully covered with fuel burns which is a very specific type of burn. That’s when you realize, they’ve sat in a mix of fuel, bodily liquids, and saltwater for hours,” Weihe says.
The passage across the Mediterranean is full of peril and approximately 20,000 people have died attempting to make the journey. The risks of staying in their home country however, are often greater.
One refugee escaping the Syrian war, Mohannad who worked as a lawyer in Raqqah, told Human Rights Watch in May 2015: “I left [Syria] two months ago because I’m an activist and I’m afraid they would arrest me and beat me a lot…My only dream is to go to another European country to show the world what is happening there.”
A capsized boat with nobody on board is seen floating in the sea (Courtesy of Sea-Watch)
Lotte Bridgham, now training to be a paramedic in London, spoke to Al Bawaba News about working on the rescue boats for Sea-Watch and SOS Méditerranée in 2018.
“People have been through this treacherous journey and suddenly, they realize that not a single person in Europe wants them. Second, the sea is not a safe place to be, especially for vulnerable people. The rescue ships can’t accommodate everyone inside, so people are sleeping on the decks outside whilst they wait for a Port of Safety.”
“It was completely fucked. For a lot of people, it is reliving the trauma,” Bridgham adds. “Once you’ve been on the boat and done the crossing, having to stay on another boat for several days awaiting a Port of Safety is like going through the trauma again, over and over.”
The rescue ships, funded by donations and not built to perform seaborne rescue missions in dangerous conditions, frequently struggle to accommodate for everyone rescued at sea. “When I was with Sea-Watch it so happened that it was the largest amount of people they’d had on the ship at any one time,” Bridgham says. “We had to make it up as we went along because we didn’t have the capacity. We would try to create wind barriers and people would be sleeping inches away from each other.”
“They don’t do anything anymore. They don’t pick up the phone.”
Sea-Watch began airborne operations after discovering a boat, filled with the bodies of people who had died from dehydration, close to their mothership which had gone undetected. The idea was to use aircraft, operated by Sea-Watch members, to communicate the location of boats found in distress. Since then, the airborne operation has also observed the movements of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard to document violations against human rights.
“There is a lot of stuff going on,” says Felix Weiss, a member of the airborne team at Sea-Watch, “by Italy, Malta, Libya, and the EU that make airborne operations a central point in the search and rescue community.”
“They don’t do anything anymore. They don’t pick up the phone. They just put merchant vessels on standby so the Libyan Coast Guard has enough time to pull the persons back. Shipping companies are telling us very weird things. They are being told by search and rescue coordination centers that they should leave the area; in the end, we find out the boats in distress are put back to Libya.”
Europe’s border agency Frontex is behind the pushback of people to Libya. This week, it was revealed that there has been an increase in the number of deaths of those attempting to seek asylum. Approximately 2,000 deaths have been linked to Europe’s policy. Frontex is currently under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, Olaf, for misconduct, harassment, and unlawful operations.
Migrants try and swim from a capsized boat onto the Sea-Watch vessel (Courtesy of Sea-Watch)
“There is a lot of money coming from Europe to the south that is aiming to block people coming to European shores,” Weiss told Al Bawaba.
“Quite often we can trace the Frontex aircraft and then the tracker disappears. After 15 minutes or so it then reappears. This suggests there is something suspicious. Alarm Phone, which is our main source of information, reports a case and we can see Frontex aircraft orbiting. We then match it with the tracking from merchant and other vessels. In those cases, we can see there was a distress case.” Weiss says that no information is passed on to close by search and rescue vessels, such as those operated by Sea-Watch, or merchant shipping in these instances.
“Around 21 April, there was a totally overcrowded rubber boat with 130 persons on board and it had been on the map for two days,” Felix Remembers.
If Frontex had given the information to all vessels in the area, the boat would likely have been picked up and the people would not have drowned.
“Frontex flew over the boat twice. They said that they don’t coordinate anything, they only support rescue coordination centers. The rescue coordination centres in Malta and Italy give all their information to Libya, and not to Sea-Watch. In the end, 130 people lost their lives, even though two merchant vessels were 5 hours away from the distress case.”
If Frontex had given the information to all vessels in the area, the boat would likely have been picked up and the people would not have drowned. Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), later told journalists that the civil hotline Alarm Phone had been passing on distress calls to states responsible for rescuing the ship.
A Sea-Watch rescuer looks for ships in distress through binoculars (Courtesy of Sea-Watch)
SOS Méditerranée, another rescue organization operating in the area, came across the aftermath of the sunken boat, northeast of Tripoli.
In a press release following the 130 deaths, they said: “States abandon their responsibility to coordinate Search and Rescue operations, leaving private actors and civil society to fill the deadly void they leave behind. We can see the result of this deliberate inaction in the sea around our ship.”
“Libya is not a safe place. It is a crazy place. If you want to be treated as an animal and die at any time, come to Libya.”
Pushbacks rely on willful blindness by European states to the condition of migrants in Libya. The journalist Guilhem Delteil, who has worked on a Mediterranean rescue ship, said people “all tell the same stories of the torture and mistreatment they’ve suffered in Libya. A topic that comes up very often in their testimonies is what they call ‘prisons’. They’re not always real prisons because most of those prisons are run by armed militia, not government forces.”
“Even going out in the streets in Tripoli is dangerous for them as they can be kidnapped… then sent to some detention center where they are forced to pay money to exit. As long as they cannot pay, they suffer torture and are abused in many different ways until their families somehow gather the money [to release them] from those prisons.”
One person interviewed by BBC Newsnight in 2015, when asked about his experiences in Libya, said that it was a time he wished to forget and implored his fellow Eritreans to use other routes if emigrating, but never to travel through Libya. “Libya is not a safe place. It is a crazy place. If you want to be treated as an animal and die at any time, come to Libya… I was there for three months… and I don’t want to keep that memory in my head.”
Boats in distress found by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard often face beatings and mistreatment even before being taken back to Libya. In one video taken by Sea-Watch, a member of the Libyan organization can be seen hitting people in an overcrowded inflatable boat. Aside from the immediate risk to the person on the receiving end of the violence, the panic-induced in the wider boat could cause the inflatable to capsize. None of the people appears to be wearing life jackets.
“Libya is not a safe country, but the European governments were trying to send everyone back because they said Libya was organizing everything,” Bridgham told Al Bawaba about her time working on rescue missions after Libyan authorities began coordinating search and rescue missions. “Then you had the charities that were refusing because it’s an unsafe country. It gave the Europeans something to stand on because they could pass the responsibility to Libya.”
“You lose faith in humanity.”
Alternative routes are now being used. On 28 April, a boat was towed by Spanish authorities with 24 dead migrants, including two children, on board. Two men and one woman were airlifted to a hospital in Tenerife. A further 200 people have lost their lives this year on the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands and Spain.
“If we want to stand up for human rights and say that Europe is a place where human rights are upheld and respected, this issue has to do with all of us,” Weihe told Al Bawaba. “Racist migration policies are a result of European politics but also the result of a society that continuously shuts a blind eye to the situation on the Central Mediterranean and other European borders. It’s the responsibility of every person in society to raise our voices against those that say people must drown at sea and not come to Europe.”
“You lose faith in humanity,” Bridgham says.
“Working on the ships you see people at their most vulnerable – including mothers and children – really risking their lives because the number of deaths that have occurred on the Mediterranean is enormous. I just don’t understand what goes through the minds of politicians in Europe. I don’t understand where the empathy has gone.”
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