European governments condemn people to harsh detention in Libya or death at sea

States are failing to help vulnerable people and obstructing vital search and rescue operations

On June 16, as the Aquarius approached Spain, people prayed for their safe arrival to start a new life.
LIBYA 2018 © Kenny Karpov/SOS MEDITERRANEE
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AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK, JUNE 29, 2018—European governments must end policies that trap extremely vulnerable people in Libya or leave them to die at sea, the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

The European Council's conclusions today on migration only reinforce these inhumane policies, MSF said.

Karline Kleijer, MSF's emergency program manager, gave the following statement:

"The only thing European states appear to have agreed on is to block people at the doorstep of Europe regardless of how vulnerable they are or what horrors they are escaping—and to demonize nongovernmental search and rescue operations. 
 
"As they continue their race to the bottom, they reach new lows. For a summit that was supposed to be a defining moment for the European Union, governments could only agree on the lowest common denominator: hardening their stance against independent search and rescue operations as part of their cynical attempts to squeeze out nongovernmental organizations' missions at sea and pursuing policies to return people to Libya. Without batting an eyelid, they have formalized—through financing and training—the use of the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people and return them to Libya. European governments do this fully in the knowledge that these people will be sent to arbitrary detention and subjected to extreme abuse.

"EU governments’ blind obsession with keeping people away from their shores’ is turning migrants, refugees and asylum seekers into little more than commodities. They attempt to pay off countries to do their dirty work, while seeking to ensure there are no inconvenient witnesses. That they do this against a backdrop of the deadliest week on the Mediterranean this year, with 220 people drowned last week, bringing the total death toll to nearly 1,000 this year, makes it even more shocking. 
 
"MSF appeals to the basic humanity of EU leaders, as we urge them—yet again—to remember we are talking about human lives and human suffering here. Scapegoating nongovernmental organizations is a tactic to distract from the real issues: the lack of solidarity or vision in the EU, and a broken asylum system. These actions block and obstruct us from doing the work EU governments are failing to do, all while dehumanizing people in need. Any deaths caused by this are now at their hands."

Despite the overwhelming needs on the sea route, an orchestrated campaign against nongovernmental search and rescue operations is making it almost impossible to operate. 

Independent search and rescue missions are increasingly obstructed from carrying out rescues in international waters and are denied access to local ports. This weekend the Aquarius, a search and rescue vessel operated by SOS Méditerranée in partnership with MSF, was one of only three dedicated search and rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean.

On June 9 and 10, the Aquarius was denied authorization to bring rescued people ashore in the closest port of safety in Italy. From June 19 to 26, as people were drowning or being returned to Libya, 339 others rescued at sea by Operation Lifeline and the commercial container ship Maersk were left in limbo for days as they were refused entry to local ports. 

On June 26, in an unprecedented development, the Maltese authorities refused permission for a routine port stop to both the Aquarius and to the Proactiva rescue ship, Open Arms. The Aquarius arrived today in the port of Marseille, France. The distance that the ship had to travel delays its return to the international search and rescue zone, putting lives at risk.

At the same time, European governments are financing, training, and equipping the Libyan coast guard to intercept boats in distress and return them to Libya, where people are held in inhumane conditions. In a further unprecedented development, some 2,000 people were returned to Libya last weekend. Upon arrival they were sent to arbitrary detention, with no due legal process.

People trapped in Libyan detention centers are largely without any assistance, as access is severely limited for international humanitarian organizations, including MSF and UN agencies. Over the last month, however, MSF has conducted more than 3,300 medical consultations in four Libyan detention centers. Medical teams found that health issues are linked to poor living conditions, including overcrowding, and the lack of sufficient water or sanitation.