10 Things to Know About the Mediterranean Crisis

Borja Ruiz Rodriguez/MSF

In 2016, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had teams aboard three search-and-rescue boats that worked in the Mediterranean Sea—the Dignity I, the Bourbon Argos, and the MV Aquarius, which MSF ran in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE. From the start of operations in April through the end of November, these three teams directly rescued 19,708 people from overcrowded and often sinking boats and assisted another 7,117 people with medical care and safe transfer to port.

The crisis on the Mediterranean has received widespread attention, but much remains unknown, misunderstood, and mischaracterized about the reasons people are taking flight, about the nature of the journey, and about the toll it takes on those who risk it. In that spirit, MSF wants to share the following points:

#1. It’s not over yet, but 2016 is already the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean.

At least 4,690 men, women, and children have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year. That’s already nearly 1,000 more than last year. This is not due to a significant increase in overall arrivals but instead an increase in mortality in the deadly stretch of water between Libya and Italy. In fact, approximately 1 of every 41 people who attempted to leave Libya by boat died trying.

Despite the shocking figures and the immense loss of life, the European response in the Central Mediterranean continues to focus on deterrence measures rather than on saving lives. This has served only to force smugglers to operate even more recklessly, which, in turn, makes the passage for more dangerous.

#2. The boats being used to attempt the crossing are getting even worse.

In 2014 and 2015, smugglers often used large wooden boats to ship people across the Mediterranean. In 2016, however, MSF teams are seeing far fewer larger boats and far more ragged, single-use, rubber dinghies that are wholly unsuitable for the crossing and are carrying far more people than they are designed to. In fact, MSF teams have rescued people from 134 extremely poor quality rubber boats and 19 wooden boats throughout the year thus far. And, far too often, MSF staff have found in these boats the bodies of people who have been asphyxiated or crushed by the weight of the other passengers, or who drowned in the toxic mix of sea water and gasoline that pools up inside.

#3. Smugglers are more ruthless than ever.

MSF teams have seen instances wherein smugglers launch a boat from Libya only to later snatch the motor off the back, leaving the vessel to float aimlessly for hours or even days. People rescued have told us they were kept in caves, ditches, or holes in the ground for days or even weeks before being forced onto a boat and sent out to sea. We’ve heard stories of executions, violence, torture, and sexual abuse. Some boats don’t have nearly enough fuel, and many passengers are forced to travel without life jackets, food, water, or other supplies for the journey. We’ve seen rescues come in waves and at all hours of the day or night. Precarious night rescues have become more frequent, in fact, as have days where a single rescue vessel has responded to more than 10 distress calls in a single 24-hour period.

#4. Ever more unaccompanied children are trying to make the crossing.

Around one in six arrivals to Italy are children; 88 percent of them are unaccompanied. In one instance, the Aquarius pulled a 10-year-old boy off a boat. He was traveling alone with his siblings, all of whom were young enough to still be in diapers.

#5. Many women we rescue are pregnant, and many pregnancies are a result of rape.

Some women we have rescued were pregnant before they left home. Many others, especially those travelling alone, have recounted horrific stories of rape and sexual abuse in Libya, some of which resulted in pregnancy. Many others are too traumatized and terrified to disclose what they have been through, but the threat of rape is so well-known that some women opted to have long-term contraceptive implants put in their arm before they traveled to ensure they did not become pregnant.

In 2016, four babies were born on MSF’s rescue boats. It is miraculous that they were rescued in time, by boats with trained midwives on board. It is all too easy to think about what would have happened—what does happen—if labor had started earlier or they had been rescued by merchant ships without proper medics.  

#6. It’s not only women and children who are vulnerable.

While women and children have very specific vulnerabilities that need special care, men, too, have issues that need tending to, even if they are more difficult to discern. We’ve seen men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the Middle East, and across Africa. Some have fled wars they want no part in. Others have been tortured or forcibly conscripted. Others come from places where human rights are violated routinely, if they are observed at all. Others were facing privation, destitution, or discrimination based on their religion, politics, or sexuality.

#7. The west is absorbing a tiny fraction of refugees and otherwise displaced people globally.

The vast majority of refugees and other migrants have sought refuge or employment in their own region, most frequently in the countries bordering their own. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the ten countries hosting the most refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad.

#8. Refugees and migrants endure horrific violence and abuse in Libya.

No matter their reasons for being in Libya in the first place, the violence and mistreatment refugees and migrants suffer there mean they simply have to get out. According to people interviewed by our teams, men, women, children, and, increasingly unaccompanied children (some as young as eight years old) living or transiting through Libya suffer abuse at the hands of smugglers, armed groups, and private individuals who exploit the desperation of those fleeing conflict, persecution, or poverty. The abuses reported include violence, sexual violence, kidnapping-for-ransom, financial exploitation, imprisonment, torture, and forced labor.

#9. Intercepting boats leaving Libya is not a solution.

Preventing people from leaving Libya condemns them to further ill treatment and physical, sexual, financial, and psychological abuse. A training plan initiated by the European Union requires the Libyan Coast Guard to play a key role in future policies of containment within Libyan territory, carrying out interception, search-rescue-and-return operations in Libyan waters. Our experience shows that intercepting overcrowded and unseaworthy boats can be extremely dangerous in this context and can exacerbate the risks faced by those desperate to reach a place of safety. People fleeing Libya must be rescued in a safe and calm manner and brought to a port of safety where they can receive assistance, claim asylum and other forms of protection, and more generally be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law and existing conventions on the treatment and consideration of refugees and asylum seekers. The current situation in Libya means that it cannot be considered a safe port of disembarkation.

#10. We cannot stand by while thousands drown.

MSF launched search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean for the same reasons it opens projects in other locations: in order to save lives and to provide medical care for people who could not otherwise access it. According to medical ethics, we work to treat those who need it no matter who they are or why they are where they are. Governments and international bodies must uphold their obligations to refugees and asylum seekers under international law. People whose lives are at risk must be allowed safe passage. Condemning thousands to further misery and death cannot be the solution.

Dignity I disembarked those rescued during their last rescue of the year on November 14 and Bourbon Argos did the same one week later. Both boats are now on standby during the winter when weather and sea conditions are expected to drastically reduce the number of people leaving Libya for Italy. The Aquarius, run in partnership with SOS MEDITERRANEE, will be the sole MSF boat present throughout the winter, operating constantly to rescue those braving the incredibly dangerous winter seas. MSF expects to reinforce its search-and-rescue capacity in March as springtime weather allows more people to cross.

Elisa Compagnons a Psychological First Aider with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), speaks with a man who has was recently rescued. He was travelling with his wife and 7 month old son. His wife was among the 25 who died.
Borja Ruiz Rodriguez/MSF