The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) recently reported that 250,000 refugees had arrived in Europe by sea in 2015 while the death toll has surpassed 2,000.
“People are fleeing their countries because of war, violence, abuse, persecution and poverty,” said Gabriele Casini – Communications and Humanitarian Affairs officer for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on board their search and rescue boat Phoenix, currently in the central Mediterranean. MSF also operates two other boats in the central Mediterranean – The Argos and the Dignity First.
Casini told dna that people are driven to embark on the dangerous journey across the the sea, as they often feel they have no other way to escape countries reeling from conflict. “The main problem is that there is no system in place for them to safely claim asylum and seek protection before reaching Europe,” says Casini. “People fleeing the oppressive regime of Eritrea or conflict areas like Somalia or Darfur, for example, have to cross hundreds of kilometres of desert before reaching Libya.”
Those who manage to survive crossing the Mediterranean sea to Europe, have described to MSF the tough circumstances that force them to find a way out, even if it means risking their lives through the dangerous sea route.
Abu Kharim (37) from Sudan, travelled to Europe with his pregnant wife Buhaissa (25). They grew up in the Kalma camp in Darfur. To escape the militias at war against each other in his country, Abu moved to Libya three years ago and enrolled in an university. However, once the war broke out there, he was unable to finish his studies and decided to move toTripoli to try and find work and earn money or get food. Abu told MSF that life was tough and there was no safety. The sounds of guns and bombs were constant, which is why they decided to move to Europe. “We needed to leave, to search for a place in which we could live like humans,” he said.
Also, the journey people make to Libya to escape the violence in their own countries, is just as hard.
“They do so in the most difficult conditions, often at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers that load them like objects in containers or overcrowded 4x4s and drive them across the desert,” says Casini. Before they even reach Libya, men are beaten, women are raped and the injured are left to die in the desert. “One of the most surprising things survivors tell us is that they chose to come to Libya because they heard or thought it was a good place to find work and live a safer life than at home,” says Casini. But once they realise that the reality is different from what they imagined, it is often too late to leave.
Nyamah Tambélé (25) from Kita, Mali chose to move to Libya because he heard the conditions were better than in his country. When his father passed away, the land his family owned was taken away and he and his mother were left with nothing. He thought the move to Libya would give him a decent life and allow him to earn enough money to buy his mother some land in Mali. But he soon discovered the harsh realities of the life there. “If you earn some money, people are going to hurt you. There are guns and knives everywhere. Even when you’re sleeping at night they come, wake you up and take your money,” he told MSF. There were a lot of uncertainties and a constant state of fear. “The problem is that there is always the risk of being abducted, imprisoned or robbed.” he added. There was no reason to stay back and that’s why he chose to take a boat to cross over to Europe, he says.
Casini says refugees in Libya are often kidnapped by various criminal groups or militias that take all their belongings and also resort to torture in order to extort money from their family and friends. The ones who manage to escape or elude these criminal networks, live in a constant state of fear of being assaulted, kidnapped or killed.
“The ones that are held captive are either killed after a few months or put on boats to Europe at gunpoint,” says Casini. “The fact is that it is practically impossible to get out of the country. Their only way out of Libya is on a dangerous, leaky boat across the Mediterranean,” she added.
However, many who make the crossing don’t realise the vastness and dangers of the Mediterranean sea until they are lost at sea. Some even refer to it as a ‘river’, says Casini.
60-year-old Zachariah from Palestine travelled with his wife, four daughters and three sons. Zachariah moved to Libya in 1994, where he had been working ever since. However, when the situation started getting worse, he decided to move with his family to Europe. “Being Palestinians, we had documentation problems and it was impossible to leave. We all come this way because we have no other option,” he told MSF. In Libya, there are many militias and people with guns. “They force you to give them the money and your mobile. They may slap, shoot or burn and abuse your body.” With no police or army and no rules, there is no protection, he says.
Need for safer legal routes
People like Zachariah, Nyamah, Abu and countless other refugees need to be provided with protection and a safer route to get out of the kind of situation they face.
“There is the need for safe legal routes for these people to claim asylum and seek protection without having to embark on treacherous and potentially fatal journeys,” said Casini. “The current European rhetoric of building barriers is inhuman and will only worsen the current humanitarian crisis, a crisis that sees the highest number of displaced people in the world since WW2,” she says.