One hundred people drown in the Mediterranean Sea in 72 hours

MSF’s search and rescue boat remains detained by Italian authorities, prevented from saving lives

A rubber boat drifts in the Mediterranean Sea, August, 2020.
Mediterranean Sea 2020 © Hannah Wallace Bowman/MSF
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Amsterdam/Paris, November 13, 2020—More than 100 people have drowned in four separate shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea in just 72 hours, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today. This brings the death toll of people who have died trying to escape Libya by crossing the central Mediterranean Sea to nearly 700 this year alone.

“The responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with European Union (EU) member states,” said MSF humanitarian affairs advisor, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. “[This is the] inevitable outcome of their murderous policies of non-assistance and the active blocking of nongovernmental organization (NGO) rescue ships.”

“For European governments or the EU Commission to say they are saddened by this horrendous loss of life is hypocritical at best,” said Hadj Sahraoui. “They need to stop with the double-speak and admit their responsibility: shipwrecks like this are the direct outcome of their approach to migration.”

MSF teams in Libya assisted three survivors rescued by fishermen yesterday, November 12, after a wooden boat capsized and left 20 others dead or missing in the water.

There is only one NGO ship able to operate in the Mediterranean right now—Open Arms. Six other NGO rescue ships, including the Sea-Watch 4 (operated by Sea-Watch in partnership with MSF), remain arbitrarily detained or blocked in port by Italian and European authorities, prevented from resuming lifesaving operations. At least 267 of the 700 deaths recorded in the Mediterranean this year occurred after the Sea-Watch 4 was detained by Italian authorities in the port of Palermo on September 19.

European states are required under international and maritime law to assist people in distress at sea. Instead, governments have not only chosen to ignore these laws and flout their responsibilities, they are criminalizing and obstructing the lifesaving work of other organizations—further reducing search and rescue capacity.

On Wednesday, Frontex, the European Border and Coastguard Agency, stated that they were “committed to saving lives at sea in close cooperation with all operational actors.” The reality is that they have continually avoided sharing information relating to boats in distress with NGO rescue ships. Frontex chooses to send location information to the Libyan Coast Guard, so the boats can be intercepted and the people forcibly returned to Libya.

Last week, a 15-year-old Eritrean boy was shot dead after armed men stormed a shelter in Tripoli. Killings, abductions, extreme violence . . . remain everyday threats that will keep pushing vulnerable people to cross the sea.

William Hennequin, MSF program manager for Libya

Interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard have spiked in recent weeks—with almost 1,000 people forcibly returned to Libya between November 3 and 9. This also illustrates the high number of people attempting to escape from Libya in recent weeks.

“The inhumane conditions inside detention centers in Libya have been denounced time and time again,” said William Hennequin, MSF program manager for Libya. “But arbitrary detention is only a small part of the deadly cycle of violence in which thousands of vulnerable people are currently trapped. Leaders of the states promoting and supporting those interceptions and returns ought to see the result of their policies by themselves.”

“Last week, a 15-year-old Eritrean boy was shot dead after armed men stormed a shelter in Tripoli,” said Hennequin. “Killings, abductions, extreme violence—including torture to extort money from the captives and their relatives—remain everyday threats. That will keep pushing vulnerable people to cross the sea to escape this abuse in the absence of other safer ways to do so.”

European states must stop placing the blame solely on traffickers for deaths at sea. Governments must accept that the many lives lost in these incidents are the human costs of their harsh policies. Human trafficking must be combatted, but not at the expense of its victims. People who need lifesaving assistance and protection are being trapped and pushed back into a cycle of abuse in Libya—or simply left to drown.