Europe continues to turn its back on refugees and migrants fleeing Libya

More than 100 people have died in the Central Mediterranean in the past week.

Survivors receiving assistance on board

Central Mediterranean © Anna Pantelia/MSF

CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN/NEW YORK, April 5, 2022—More than 100 people have lost their lives in the past week in two separate incidents in the Central Mediterranean Sea, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today. These avoidable tragedies are the result of the European Union (EU) and its member states’ deadly policies towards refugees and migrants seeking safety in Europe.

“The withdrawal of the EU and its member states from search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea and their support to the Libyan coastguard are at the root of the deaths and violations of human rights occurring in the Central Mediterranean,” said Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator on board the Geo Barents, MSF’s search and rescue vessel. 

MSF condemns the negligence of Italy and Malta to assist boats in distress and the indifference of EU member states to the rising death toll and the ongoing violation of human rights in the Mediterranean Sea, even as those same European leaders and institutions express their deepest solidarity with refugees fleeing war-torn countries. 

In addition to people who have died at sea, in the past week at least 130 people were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya. There they almost certainly face the litany of ill-treatment, abuse, and torture that has been widely documented to occur in Libyan detention centers.

The team onboard the Geo Barents performed a critical operation in international waters on the afternoon of March 29, rescuing 113 people from a rubber boat in distress. Many people on board the boat fell into the water during the rescue operation, and others became unconscious due to fuel inhalation. After nearly two hours, all 113 survivors were safely transferred onto Geo Barents and received medical care. 

One third of the survivors are unaccompanied minors, several of them under the age of 15. The Geo Barents is currently waiting for a port to be assigned to disembark all the survivors in a place of safety

“The majority of the survivors are psychologically traumatized as a result of their time at sea, the state of the boat, and the critical nature of the rescue,” said Willemen. “Our medical team treated many of the survivors for hypothermia and some severe cases who needed immediate ventilation and oxygen therapy due to fuel intoxication.” 

“When I was in the rubber boat the floor collapsed and the water was coming in,” said Jean, 17, from Guinea. “I jumped in the sea as I was in a panic. I tried everything I could to stay alive, but I started to drown. Someone from the rescue team pulled me from the water, but after that I don't remember anything because I [lost consciousness].” 

On March 31, four children and seven women were found dead in an overcrowded rubber boat after spending several hours drifting off the coast of Libya, according to reports. The remaining 126 passengers were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard six hours after the distress call was issued. All of the survivors were then forcibly returned to Libya, from where they had attempted to flee and are most likely now detained. 

Two days later, on April 2, more than 90 people died after at least four days at sea while attempting to cross to Europe. The cause of their deaths is still unknown. Four people survived and were rescued by the commercial tanker Alegria 1. The MSF team on board Geo Barents, which monitors the region for boats in need of rescue, overheard a radio conversation in which a search and rescue aircraft gave instructions to the tanker to perform the rescue. The MSF team immediately contacted Alegria 1 to offer medical assistance to the survivors and to request that the tanker comply with legal and maritime obligations and transport the survivors to the nearest place of safety. Alegria 1 ignored MSF's requests and continued on its way to Libya. 

“Our repeated offers to provide assistance to the four survivors and our plea not to return the people to Libya went [ignored],” said Willemen. “These people fled the hell of Libya and then witnessed the death of dozens of their companions while drifting for several days at sea without any assistance. After this unimaginable ordeal, they have been condemned to be returned to Libya, re-entering the vicious cycle of violence, extortion, and abuse they were trying to escape.”

“We urge Frontex and other European aircraft and vessels present in the area to reveal the circumstances of these tragic events,” said Willemen. “When will Europe put an end to this and embrace its responsibilities to protect lives instead of borders?”