Refugees trapped in a cycle of violence and despair

Inhumane migration policies have led to the suffering of thousands

What level of desperation leads a mother to take her three young children on board a dilapidated, overcrowded boat and sail into the vastness of Mediterranean Sea?

It’s hard to imagine the horrors that would drive anyone to seek safety in that way, yet it remains a situation facing thousands of vulnerable people in Libya today.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has seen first-hand the dangers faced by migrants in the country, having provided general and psychological health care to people trapped in detention centres since 2016.

Men, women and children are arbitrarily detained in appalling conditions for months and in many cases years, with little access to food, water or open air. Some of them suffered torture and trafficking while in the country. An MSF team’s visit to Zintan detention centre, south of Tripoli, in May, found 900 people having to share four barely functioning toilets and with only sporadic access to water not suitable for drinking. A deadly tuberculosis outbreak had been raging for months.

This precarious situation is not improving. The closure of one detention centre by Libyan authorities in Misrata in October saw the transfer of around 100 people to two other detention centres. Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Libyan authorities know how bad conditions are in these centres, yet these people were not released nor taken to a safer environment.

From Europe and North Africa to Central America,

South East Asia and the Pacific, inhumane 

migration policies and the criminalisation of 

humanitarian work has almost become commonplace

This situation is made worse by another factor that keeps people seeking safety trapped in a cycle of violence and despair.

For every person that is resettled out of Libya, four are forcibly returned by the Libyan coastguard. This not only compounds the misery for people stuck in Libya but has left inadequate search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean resulting in thousands in danger of dying at sea.

Only since August has MSF in partnership with SOS Mediterranee been able to resume limited search and rescue operations with the vessel Ocean Viking. Since then around 1,050 people have been rescued, while more than 700 are known to have died or gone missing. The number is likely much higher.

According to the United Nations over 7,000 others have been intercepted on dangerous, makeshift vessels and returned to Libya, a country no EU government classifies as being safe. Just last week over 400 people seeking safety from Libya were forcible returned to the country.

These forced returns are a direct consequence of European policies of externalising borders and have led to the direct suffering of thousands. These policies need to change or else more lives will be lost at sea and those still trapped in detention centres in Libya will continue to be in grave danger.

Perversely, the young mother and her three children who took that perilous voyage into the Mediterranean Sea last month were the lucky ones. They, and the 98 others crammed on the boat, were rescued and allowed to disembark in Taranto, southern Italy. The MSF medical team on-board treated the rescued for a litany of ailments from fuel-inhalation to exhaustion and burns. Yet for each rescue, MSF still needs to negotiate with the EU for a place of disembarkation.

That MSF was able to return to sea in August came after it was forced to suspend life-saving work with the vessel Aquarius last December. That was a consequence of a political and legal campaign led by the Italian government of the time to criminalise people drowning at sea and those trying to help them.

This is a disturbing global trend.

From Europe and North Africa to Central America, South East Asia and the Pacific, inhumane migration policies and the criminalisation of humanitarian work has almost become commonplace.

Last October MSF mental health teams were kicked out of the Pacific island nation of Nauru, but not before our medical data had shown that over 60 per cent of refugees there have had suicidal thoughts caused directly by their indefinite detention in the Australian government offshore processing camp.

And two years on from the mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar, nearly one million people who fled persecution and violence are living in camps in Bangladesh with no legal status and are entirely reliant on health services from humanitarian actors.

Though MSF is able to undertake live-saving medical humanitarian work in accordance with international humanitarian law, we are increasingly being undermined. The work of International NGOs — including medical care — is deliberately being portrayed as illegal or even as a source of support for terrorist groups.

MSF is an impartial, neutral, and independent medical organisation that respects medical ethics and treats anyone who needs emergency medical care. The United Nations and its constituent members must respect the rights of those seeking safety to receive assistance by upholding international humanitarian laws and principles. Seeking safety and providing emergency medical care are not crimes.

Dr Unni Karunakara is former international president of Medecins Sans Frontieres, and Mario Stephan is Executive Director of Medecins Sans Frontieres UAE    

Source: Gulf News