Nearly 100,000 migrants forcibly returned to Libya since 2017, says MSF

International Organisation for Migration says more than 24,000 people have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014

A medical charity involved in the rescues of more than 3,100 people on the Mediterranean Sea over the past year has accused European states of “shameful disengagement”.

In its first year of operations the Geo Barents, a ship run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was involved in the rescue of 3,138 people, including more than 1,000 children, who were then brought to Europe. Survivors, who reported being left at sea for up to 72 hours, were usually in overcrowded rubber or wooden boats without working life jackets.

More than 24,000 people have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Nearly 20,000 of them have been on the central Mediterranean route, in which the Geo Barents operates. It has been named by the UN as the deadliest migration route in the world.

Since 2017 the EU has been supporting the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats of refugees and migrants there. Since then nearly 100,000 people have been forcibly returned to Libya, where they face “degrading treatment, like extortion, torture and – all too often – death”, MSF says.

During the year that the Geo Barents has operated, rescued people told MSF staff of 620 experiences of violence they had gone through, the medical charity said in a new report. Some 84 per cent occurred in Libya, with a “significant number” happening after interception. One-third of the perpetrators were guards in detention centres, while the Libyan coastguard was responsible for 15 per cent of incidents and smugglers or traffickers for 10 per cent. Almost one-fifth of victims were women and nearly one-third were minors.

“[The] most prevalent health consequences of the recorded violent events were linked to blunt trauma, burns, fractures, head injuries, injuries related to sexual violence, [and] mental health disorders. Others include long-term physical disability, pregnancies, malnutrition and chronic pain,” said Stephanie Hofstetter, a medical team leader on board the Geo Barents.

The EU stopped doing search-and-rescue sea patrols in March 2019, while independent search-and-rescue operations have increasingly faced criminal investigations and charges.

“The real tragedy is that so much of the suffering and death along the central Mediterranean route is preventable,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet last year, while urging the EU and its member states to urgently reform their search-and-rescue policies.

“Every year, people drown because help comes too late, or never comes at all. Those who are rescued are sometimes forced to wait for days or weeks to be safely disembarked or, as has increasingly been the case, are returned to Libya which, as has been stressed on countless occasions, is not a safe harbour due to the cycle of violence,” she said.

“The sad reality at the southern European border has not changed: the normalisation of policies of deterrence and non-assistance at sea, as well as the dismantling of the search-and-rescue system in favour of forced returns, continue to generate human suffering and loss of life,” MSF said in a statement this week, adding that the figures, “which represent human lives, are outrageous”.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa