Carnage in the Mediterranean is the direct result of European state policies

Carnage in the Mediterranean is the direct result of European state policies

Geneva - The last few days have produced one of the most lethal episodes in the central Mediterranean Sea so far this year, with more than 100 people dying at sea in three separate shipwrecks within less than 72 hours. Six NGO rescue ships remain blocked in port by Italian and European authorities, as MSF teams in Libya assisted three female survivors rescued by fishermen yesterday, after a wooden boat capsized to leave 20 others dead or missing in the water.

“Enough with the empty lamentations in response to the carnage unfolding,” said MSF Humanitarian Affairs Advisor Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. “The responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with EU member states, as the concrete and inevitable outcome of their murderous policies of non-assistance and the active blocking of 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.”

Nearly 700 people have died in their attempt to escape Libya across the central Mediterranean during 2020, and at least 267 of these deaths have been reported since the Sea-Watch 4 was detained by Italian authorities in the port of Palermo on 19 September. With six NGO ships prevented from resuming lifesaving operations under the guise of concerns about safety of navigation, the rescue ship Open Arms is currently the only civilian ship able to operate.

Rather than meeting their international and maritime obligations to assist those in distress at sea, European states have chosen to further decimate search and rescue capacity. They engage in the charade of welcoming or recognising the value of the lifesaving work of NGOs, while orchestrating or endorsing their criminalisation.

Interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard meanwhile have spiked in recent weeks, with almost 1,000 people forcibly returned to Libya between 3 and 9 November; this is indicative of the high number of people attempting to escape from Libya in recent weeks.

“The inhumane conditions inside detention centres in Libya have been denounced time and time again,” said William Hennequin, MSF programme manager for Libya. “But arbitrary detention 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.”

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”. However, this masks the reality that they have continually avoided sharing information relating to boats in distress with NGO rescue ships, while sending the locations to the Libyan Coast Guard, so the boats can be trapped and forcibly returned to Libya.

European states must stop blaming this loss of life only on the callousness of traffickers. They must instead accept that the mass loss of life in these incidents are the human collateral of their own calculated and political decision-making. Human trafficking must be combatted, but not at the expense of its victims who, instead of receiving lifesaving assistance and protection, are trapped and pushed back into a cycle of abuse. Or simply left to drown.


Shipwrecks since the detention of the Sea-Watch 4

12/11: IOM confirmed a shipwreck off the coast of Khoms, Libya that claimed the lives of at least 74 people. The boat was reported to be carrying 120 people, including women and children. 47 survivors were brought to shore by the coast guard and fishermen; 31 bodies were retrieved, while the search for victims continues.

12/11: 20 people died after a shipwreck off Sorman, Libya.  

11/11: Six people, including a six-month-old baby, died when a the floor of a rubber boat collapsed off the coast of Libya. Open Arms managed to rescue 111 people from the deflating boat and is now carrying the bodies of the deceased people on board.

10/11: IOM confirmed that 13 people died after a boat capsized off the coast of Libya, including a child, while 11 others were forcibly returned. 25/10: IOM confirmed that at least 11 people had died after a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, according to the testimony of 10 survivors who were returned to Libya.

22/10: A boat capsized off Lampedusa, Italy, leading to the presumed death of four Libyans and one Moroccan.

20/10: A shipwreck off the coast of Sabratha in western Libya led to the death of 15 people, including two children.

  • IOM has reported at least eight other shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean since 1 October. 
  • Since the Sea-Watch 4 was impounded on 19 September, at least 267 people have lost their lives.
  • So far this year, according to Missing Migrants, nearly 700 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach European shores, some due to delays in rescue.
  • However, the actual number of fatalities amongst those who have departed from Libya is likely to be much higher. This is partly due to the occurrence of invisible shipwrecks that have remained unreported (owing also to the lack of SAR ships in the area), on which IOM has expressed grave concern. Furthermore, due to the total number of sea arrivals in Italy include departures both from Tunisia and Libya (with arrivals from Tunisia showing a rapid increase in recent months), it is extremely difficult to track how many of the boats that have departed from Libya have actually made it safely to European shores.
  • Open Arms is the only NGO SAR vessel currently operating in the central Mediterranean – civilian search and rescue capacity has been decimated over the past six months with six NGO SAR ships detained or effectively blocked in Italian ports (Sea-Watch 3, Ocean Viking, Aita Mari, Alan Kurdi, Sea-Watch 4, Mare Jonio). There are currently 257 people on board Open Arms, rescued in three operations on 10 and 11 November, who urgently need to be disembarked in a place of safety. 
  • Interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard have spiked in recent weeks, with almost 1,000 people forcibly returned back to Libya last week (the week of 3-9 November), according to IOM. In comparison, for the entire month of September, a total of 1,131 people were intercepted and returned to Libya.
  • The high number of interceptions is indicative of the high number of departures of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from Libya in recent weeks, owing to the high degree of insecurity and vulnerability to violence, abuse, kidnapping and exploitation which characterises their situation in the country. The recent killing of a 15-year-old Eritrean asylum-seeker, who was awaiting resettlement, by armed men in Tripoli provides a sobering illustration of this dangerous, deadly reality.
  • According to IOM more than 11,000 others have been intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya this year  (IOM PR).
Contact us
Etienne Lhermitte Media Officer, Médecins Sans Frontières/Ärzte ohne Grenzen (MSF)
Emma Amadò MSFCH Media Events Team Manager, Médecins Sans Frontières/Ärzte ohne Grenzen (MSF)
Lukas Nef Communications Officer, Médecins Sans Frontières/Ärzte ohne Grenzen (MSF)
Etienne Lhermitte Media Officer, Médecins Sans Frontières/Ärzte ohne Grenzen (MSF)
Emma Amadò MSFCH Media Events Team Manager, Médecins Sans Frontières/Ärzte ohne Grenzen (MSF)
Lukas Nef Communications Officer, Médecins Sans Frontières/Ärzte ohne Grenzen (MSF)
About MSF Switzerland

MSF Switzerland
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is a worldwide movement of current and former field staff, grouped into national and regional associations. Collectively, they make sure that MSF stays true to its mission and principles.

MSF associations

Currently, there are 24 associations. All are independent legal entities, and each elects its own board of directors and president. Most associations have an executive office that raises funds and recruits staff for MSF’s operations.