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Irish Navy must focus on saving lives, not border control, says charity

Refugees and migrants sent back to Libya face torture, Médecins Sans Frontières tells Oireachtas

Rescue teams from Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS MEDITERRANEE during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea. Photograph: Guillaume Binet/MYOP

Irish naval vessels carrying out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean must focus on saving lives and not support efforts to return refugees and migrants Libyan detention centres, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Thousands of migrants and refugees who have been rescued from the Mediterranean have been subjected to physical and sometimes sexual violence whilst in Libya, an Irish doctor working with humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned.

Dr Conor Kenny, who spent three months working on board the Aquarius rescue vessel earlier this year, told Thursday’s Oireachtas Committee how many of those rescued from the Mediterranean had endured torture and hard labour in Libyan detention centres.

“They often speak about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of smugglers, armed groups and private individuals. Many tell us stories of how they were bought and sold as a commodity. It appears to be a place of extreme danger with no rule of law,” he said.

Ireland needs to know that returning people to Libya is simply not an option.”

Mr Kenny said most patients are suffer from “hypothermia; dehydration and exhaustion” while others are severely burned by the gasoline used to power the boat’s engine.

Toxic liquid

“When fuel mixes with seawater it turns into a highly corrosive and hazardous substance,” he said, adding that many were forced to sit in this substance for hours “resulting in severe burns to their genitals”. Others swallow and inhale the toxic liquid substance into their lungs.

MSF director Sam Taylor commended the Irish State for providing maritime assistance in the Mediterranean but called on the navy to focus on humanitarian rescues rather than border control.

“We would caution against any shift that would see the priority move away from a rescue operation to predominantly that of an anti-smuggling one, including Ireland’s naval response.

So far this year 2,306 people have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean, according to the UN Refugee Agency. A total of 98,185 people have arrived in Europe by sea since the start of 2017.

To date, MSF teams have rescued or assisted more than 30,000 people in distress in the central Mediterranean.

Mr Taylor underlined that NGO search and rescue missions were not creating a “pull factor” and said research showed people would risk crossing the Mediterranean even if there were no rescue vessels. “People know there is a high risk of dying and they’re prepared to take it.”

“There is a legal obligation for any vessel, when there is another vessel in distress, to go to their aid. We’re not providing an ambulance or taxi service. The laws of the sea dictate that other vessels must be attended to.

“The solution lies with European individual states. Our search and rescue operation is not the solution to this ongoing crisis, nor is it the cause as some have claimed.”

Gunfire

Dr Kenny also described an incident when a boat containing men who identified themselves as the Libyan coastguard approached a boat in distress during an MSF rescue operation and began firing guns in the air. He said the men stole the people’s belongings before towing the rubber dingy back into Libyan waters. These are the people who are in receipt of training and support from the European Union, he added.

MSF announced in June 2016 that it would no longer accept funding from the European Union and member states, including the Irish Government, because of Europe’s attempts to “push people and their suffering away from European shores”. “We feel there is a dangerous movement to prevent people seeking asylum”, said Mr Taylor. “People have the right to flee persecution or war.”