Working with refugees: ‘They would rather die at sea than be tortured’
Irish humanitarian worker says kidnapping, torture stories have become all too familiar
Yuka Crikmar MSF Humanitarian Affairs officer registering people on board the Ocean Viking.
Stories of starvation, torture and kidnapping have become all too familiar to Yuka Crickmar, a 31-year-old humanitarian worker from Dublin.
Working on board the Ocean Viking, a search and rescue ship organised by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, since late July, her days are spent speaking to survivors of the hazardous water crossing from Libya to Europe.
“All of them say repeatedly how dangerous Libya is and the cycles of abuse they get caught in,” she says.
“They get kidnapped by armed, criminal groups, they will be captured and contained in horrible conditions with no sunlight, no food and perhaps one piece of bread to share between two people. Some of them are electrocuted all over their body.”
One young boy who was rescued by the ship told the charity he was forced to “work like a slave” because in Libya, “if you are black you are currency”.
“They force us to call family or friends who hear our screams as we are tortured, blackmailed into sending money for it to stop,” the young boy said in his testimony to MSF.
Ms Crickmar, who joined the charity four years ago, documents the experience of survivors and assess what sort of care they need.
“Some of these people have tried four, five, six, even seven times to escape by sea but then they’re captured and sent back to where they came from. The only option is to escape by sea, often on a flimsy, rubber boat,” she says.
She was speaking ahead of a meeting of EU ministers in Malta on Monday where governments hope to find a solution to the current situation of rescue ships being refused entry to ports.
Ms Crickmar says the current impasse means survivors are kept on board the ship until an EU member state agrees to take them, and this creates added strain, Ms Crickmar says.
“When they’re in those rubber boats, they’re under the hot sun, dehydrated, sea sick, and often have no life jackets. They finally escaped the cycle of abuse and then they’re trapped on a ship with uncertainty and fear that they might be sent back to Libya,” she said. “It’s an unnecessary psychological burden.”
Speaking in the Dáil on this issue last week, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he is “quite critical” of the EU in terms of the bloc’s ability to decide on an approach to migration and, in particular, people fleeing Libya.
“It is not morally acceptable for the European Union not to put resources into ensuring that people do not drown in the Mediterranean,” Mr Coveney said.
“The idea that we would knowingly allow people to drown in the Mediterranean and not have an agreed capacity to respond to that in a more humane way than is currently the case is not acceptable to me.”
MSF is calling on the EU to establish a disembarkment programme, that removes the uncertainty rescuers face when trying to relocate these people.
“When we try to find a place we are faced with long delays until the EU members discuss and decide where we can disembark on an ad-hoc basis. Currently, their fate is being decided by EU countries,” said Ms Crickmar.
The Dubliner said that she joined MSF because she wanted to “save as many lives as possible at sea”.“You can’t just sit back when all of these people are drowning,” she said.
In 2019, for every 12 people that reach Europe, one will die trying to cross the Central Mediterranean. As of September 13th, 6,058 were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard this year and forcibly returned to Libya, according to the UNHCR.
So far the ship has rescued 656 people, which is nearly the same number known to have died at sea.
Despite the challenges, Ms Crickmar said that she loves her job and the impact it has.
“Before I started college, I chose my courses based on doing work for a humanitarian organisation. I wanted to work, to contribute in some way, working with people who are suffering in the world.”