Libyans turn to deadly Mediterranean route amid escalating conflict at home

The end of a rescue ship’s ninth mission in the area underlines growing danger in Libya

“It’s beautiful,” said a father, as he gazed at the Sicilian coast looming before him. “My country could be beautiful but it needs 10, 15 years.”

He was one of 32 Libyans who were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea on Friday morning and disembarked in Pozzallo, Italy, on Sunday. They had an unusually short wait before Italian authorities confirmed a port of safety – a process that can take days or even weeks, as European states debate who has responsibility to accept refugees and asylum seekers found at sea.

The Libyans interviewed by The Irish Times said they fled a country where war has become the norm, militias exercise total control and kidnappings and killings happen regularly. Some said they wanted safety and freedom for their children. Others said they couldn’t imagine having children in a country so dangerous, and dream of building a future somewhere secure.

The ship they were rescued on is called the Alan Kurdi, after a Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, and is operated by German charity Sea-Eye. Its crew of mostly volunteers, of 10 nationalities, set sail for the Libyan search-and-rescue zone on Christmas Day.


Two days later, they were alerted to a small fibreglass boat in distress. On board were 10 children and five women, one of whom was heavily pregnant.

This year, at least 1,246 men, women and children have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to cross to Europe. It is more common for people escaping other African wars or dictatorships to take this risk, using Libya as a transit country, than for Libyans to make the sea journey themselves.

That may soon change. In April, strongman general Khalifa Haftar announced he was advancing troops from eastern Libya in an attempt to wrench control of the capital, Tripoli, from the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Since then, more than 2,000 people have been killed in fighting in the country and roughly 150,000 displaced.

Best chance

Several Libyans on board the Alan Kurdi said they had friends who had already crossed the Mediterranean or who wanted to cross. They were convinced Europe was their best chance at finding peace but said they had repeatedly been rejected for visas.

“I think that Italy’s positive reaction and quick move [in this instance] – [though] well appreciated – might encourage other Libyans to follow the same irregular route to reach safety,” said Amera Markous, a Libyan migration researcher. “This might be their only way out of a war-torn country, yet states know well the risks associated with it, especially during the winter season where people can barely survive at sea. Therefore, if they are willing to accept Libyans, they should provide a safer way to [travel] rather than allow more to follow this deadly route.”

On Saturday night, the Alan Kurdi was given permission to dock in Pozzallo, Sicily. Some Libyan men cheered before singing the Italian protest song Bella Ciao – the only Italian words they knew – while others hugged their children and cried.

The next morning, staff from the Italian Red Cross came on board to meet the Libyans, separating out families and arranging for the pregnant “mama” to be brought to hospital.

As each adult disembarked, they were made fill out a form before a photographer took their picture. They were then led into a bus with dark windows, and, eventually, all driven away to begin the long process of making asylum claims.

This marked the end of the Alan Kurdi’s ninth mission. In total, the rescue ship has saved 460 lives, Sea-Eye says.

"It's very good, I'm happy, we are released, everyone is free," said the ship's deck manager Edward Akyuanu, a 36-year-old from Ghana. "I'm happy we've achieved something today, we brought them to a port of safety. It was very good, positive."