EU leaders turning blind eye to ‘torture’ of migrants in Libya

Irish doctor says refugees and migrants would ‘rather die at sea than go back to Libya’

European leaders must open safe and legal routes for refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean rather than ignoring abuse perpetuated by Libyan forces, an Irish doctor has warned.

European Union-led attempts to stop refugees crossing the Mediterranean through collaboration with Libyan authorities would only fuel the smuggling industry, said Dr Conor Kenny.

The Sligo-born doctor has spent three months this year working on board the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) search and rescue vessel MV Aquarius, in the Mediterranean.

The vast majority of injuries suffered by migrants that he has treated while on board the rescue ship were the result of abuse and torture in Libyan detention centres, he declared.

"I haven't been to Libya but these people's stories are corroborated in rescue upon rescue. It's clear these abuses are happening. Many are beaten in detention centres and some are shot. They say they would rather die at sea than go back to Libya."

“When I see dead bodies floating on a Wednesday afternoon in the calm Mediterranean sea, I just think we need a proper approach to save these lives. The work of NGOs in the Mediterranean is important but we are not the solution to this problem.”

Emergency treatment

Dr Kenny was working as a doctor in King’s College Hospital before he began his three-month placement on board the MSF rescue vessel in February 2017. “I’d seen the rubber boats in the news but when you actually see it in person, you cannot describe how vulnerable these people are. I’ll never forget the smell of fuel from the boats and how under-nourished the people looked.”

Once particular rescue from late March remains etched in Dr Kenny's mind. The Aquarius, which was floating in international waters about 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, spotted a boat full of people at about midnight. By 2.30am, three more boats had arrived each carrying about 120 people. A woman in her 20s who had suffered a heart attack was brought on board the MSF ship.

“We tried to resuscitate her. The skin on the right side of her face had dissolved in the fuel and she was burned down the right side of her body. She had drowned in the gasoline in her rubber boat. She did not drown at sea.”

Working with a small team of two nurses and one midwife, Dr Kenny had to prioritise which patients required emergency treatment. “The majority of people are pale or exhausted. Many collapse due to hypothermia, lack of food or just sheer exhaustion after the incredible journey they have undertaken.”

Once people have settled on the boat a sense of relief takes over. “There are different cultures mixing and often they create music, song or dance. It’s a beautiful thing to see. But when we get to port the mood changes again. People are scared. They don’t know what’s ahead of them.”

‘Reckless deals’

Amnesty International also criticised European leaders this week for "shamelessly prioritising reckless deals with Libya" and "ceding the lion's share of responsibility for search and rescue to NGOs".

Interceptions by the Libyan coastguard often put refugees and migrants at even greater risk with reports that the coastguard was “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”, warned Amnesty’s report into the failure of European policies in the Mediterranean. It said refugees trapped in Libya were vulnerable to “abuses including killings, torture, rape, kidnappings, forced labour and detention in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions.”

Speaking ahead of Thursday's meeting of EU ministers in Tallinn, Estonia on measures to stem migration to Europe, Amnesty director John Dalhuisen warned that 2017 was on track to become the "deadliest year for the deadliest migration route in the world".

According to the latest data from the UN Refugee Agency, 98,185 people have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean so far this year. Some 2,257 people have died or gone missing during the crossing since the start of 2017. A total of 362,753 people arrived in Europe by sea in 2016.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast