Condemned to drown at sea or be locked up, the plight of migrants & refugees in Libya

More than 100 people reportedly died in a shipwreck off the Libyan coast

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 — More than a hundred people have reportedly died after a shipwreck off the Libyan coast one week ago, survivors told Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams working in Libya. A group of 276[1] people, among them survivors of the shipwreck, were brought from the sea to the port city of Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) by the Libyan coast guard on Sunday 2 September. MSF has been providing urgent medical assistance following disembarkation.

[1] Documented by UNHCR – see http://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2018/9/5b8e42ac4/tripoli-violence-threatens-civilians-displaced-refugees-migrants.html

Personal account from a shipwreck’s survivor: 

According to the information received by MSF staff, two rubber boats reportedly left the Libyan coast early in the morning on Saturday 1 September. Each boat was carrying more than 160 people of different nationalities such as Sudanese, Malians, Nigerians, Cameroonians, Ghanaians, Libyans, Algerians and Egyptians.

“While the first boat had stopped due to an engine failure, our boat continued to navigate and began deflating around 1pm. We were 165 adults and 20 children on-board, explains a survivor of the shipwreck. At that time, the mobile sat phone showed that we were not far from Maltese coast. We called the Italian coastguard and sent our coordinates, asking for assistance as people started to fall in the water. We were told they would send someone. But the boat started sinking. We couldn’t swim and only a few people had life jackets. Those among us who could hold on the boat’s floating hood stayed alive. [European] Rescuers came later by air and threw life rafts but everybody was in the water; the boat had already sunk and capsized. Few hours later, other rescuers also came by air, throwing more life rafts. On our boat, only 55 people survived.  Many people died, including families and children. They could have been saved if rescues had come earlier. The children have died, including two 17 months old twins who perished along with their mother and father. The Libyan coastguards also arrived, rescuing first the shipwreck survivors and recovering then the second boat. We were all brought here”. Only two bodies were recovered.

MSF emergency response

MSF has treated survivors with chemical burns from the engine petrol spills, “Our medical team worked solidly for several hours to assist survivors with the most serious conditions, says Jai Defranciscis, an MSF nurse working in Misrata, northwest Libya. “We managed to treat 18 urgent cases – among them were nine people suffering from extensive chemical burns (up to 75 percent of the body). We organised a referral to the hospital for a patient in particularly critical condition: without quick access to specialised intensive care, the person would have died.”

Upon disembarkation, the group was transferred to a detention centre under the control of the Libyan authorities. It is common for people returned to Libya from unseaworthy boats to be sent back into a harmful system of arbitrary detention. Between January to August 2018, the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard already returned 13, 185 refugees and migrants to Libya[1].

As part of its activities in detention centres in and around Khoms, our teams have provided further medical and follow-up care to the group while they remain in detention. Among the group are pregnant women, children and babies, and people with serious medical conditions and chemical burns. MSF teams have also organised six additional referrals to hospital.

Sick and traumatised people left with no alternative than arbitrary detention

“We are extremely worried for our patients. How can they recover when locked inside cells, in very poor hygiene conditions, and sleeping on blankets or mattresses placed on the floor that cause incredible pain for those suffering from severe burns? Some of them cannot even sit or walk.” says Defranciscis.

“We have started to see patients with severe chest infections like pneumonia, caused by being in the water for such a long time.” Inadequate access to clean drinking water and food is likely to delay or prevent people’s recovery and might instead exacerbate their medical conditions. 

Many of the survivors are mourning the loss of their relatives. On top of the dangers faced during the journey through Libya, they have experienced another very traumatic situation at sea. Instead of receiving the support they need, refugees and migrants are arrested and detained in deplorable living conditions, without basic safeguard, legal recourse or alternative.  

Among those detained, MSF has met asylum seekers and refugees who have been registered or recognised by UNHCR in Libya or another country. Their prospects appear particularly bleak: UNHCR- led mechanisms to evacuate them from Libya to Niger and resettle them in a third country, launched in 2017 in the aftermath of the global outrage sparked by CNN footage, have remained at a standstill for several months. Instead, asylum seekers and refugees face indefinite arbitrary detention and are at risk of being trafficked, as criminal networks are often the only option left for people to continue their journey in search of safety.

Some people also told our teams that they had decided to leave Tripoli to escape the violent clashes and shelling that began on 26 August in the capital.

MSF reiterates its call to end the arbitrary detention of thousands of refugees and migrants across Libya and scale ways to evacuate them to safety out of the country. Specifically, MSF urges:

- UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and safe countries to rapidly organise the evacuation of refugees and asylum-seekers from Libya and expedite their resettlement.

- UN Migration Agency (IOM) and countries of origin to expedite the evacuation and repatriation of migrants in Libya who wish to return to their home countries.

- European States and Libyan authorities to stop intercepting people who flee by sea and returning them to Libya as a mean to prevent arrivals to Europe.

[END]

[1] Source UNHCR - see https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNHCR%20Libya%20Flash%20Update%2031%20August%202018.pdf

A shipwreck survivor in detention centre, being treated by MSF medical staff. He has an old gunshot wound in the leg.<br/>His testimony: “We left Libya in a rubber dinghy in the night. We were rescued by the Libyan coast guard. We called the Italian authorities and they sent the Libyans to bring us back. While we were sailing we had a problem with our dingy, it was very hot and the dinghy was deflating. Also at one point the engine stopped. On the boat there were a lot of children and pregnant women. Families. We struggled to survive. We were in the water next to dead bodies. Europe should know what we are going through: we cannot stay in Libya. It’s very dangerous for us. On my left leg, I have a gun shot. My friends helped me to collect money as I wanted to go to Europe to find treatment for my leg. They told me its 10.000 Libyan dinar. I don’t have that money. This is my story, but there are many different stories here. We are not criminals, we are not thieves. We are struggling to survive. I feel very sad and disappointed. It’s painful. I lost a lot of friends. I don’t know my left and my right any more. I don’t know where I will go tomorrow. We need help, and we have been locked up as prisoners. I don’t know why they keep sending people back to Libya. We are running away from here. I am not asking the Italian government to accept all of us to their country, but don’t send us back to Libya. Photographer: Sara Creta
Refugees and migrants detained in the detention centre get rice or pasta for lunch and dinner. For breakfast people receive bread with some cheese. Food is prepared in-house and is served in large metal bowls to be shared by five to 10 people. Photographer: Sara Creta
Tap water and jerricans in detention centre. Despite MSF effort to improve access to water and sanitation in order to alleviate the immediate suffering of people while detained, hygiene conditions and access to clean water to wash and drink remain poor, resulting in the spread of various diseases and infections, including scabies. Photographer: Sara Creta
Tap water and jerricans in detention centre. Despite MSF effort to improve access to water and sanitation in order to alleviate the immediate suffering of people while detained, hygiene conditions and access to clean water to wash and drink remain poor, resulting in the spread of various diseases and infections, including scabies. Photographer: Sara Creta
A young couple is kept apart and everyday, when the guards allow them, they meet over the window. On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
A shipwreck survivor in detention centre. He was referred to the local hospital as he started to develop serious chest infections as result of long hours spent in the water.<br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
Graffiti on detention centre walls. Photographer: Sara Creta
A woman in detention centre.<br/>Her testimony: “We were abandoned at sea. People lost hope. Why did we let people die at sea? They have all the means to rescue us. We are all humans. If we try to go to Europe, it’s to have a better life. People will keep continuing taking journey by sea. There are people who are escaping war, others are escaping poverty; people should be rescued and later on each individual case is looked at. We are not in Libya to stay here, we want to go to Europe. We are not criminals”. Photographer: Sara Creta
Women cells in the detention centre<br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
Graffiti on detention centre walls done by shipwreck survivor who doesn’t want the event to go unnoticed. Photographer: Sara Creta
9 months old child is detained with his mother and 10 yo brother.<br/>The mother said: “We run away only because we don’t feel safe in Libya. We are afraid of human trafficking. People are afraid here. There is no freedom for us. My boy was born in prison”<br/><br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
Mother and child in detention centre.<br/>Her testimony: I’m 18 years old. I know I look tired and old. I’ve spend one year and half in Libya, that’s why. My son is 8 months now. I was lucky to give birth in a hospital: I was 9 months pregnant when I had a crisis and the people who kept me brought me to deliver in a clinic in Tripoli. My husband left to Algeria. Now it has been a long time since last time I called him. He doesn’t know whether I’m dead or alive. After we went to sea and were brought back to Libya, my son fell sick. He has fever in the night and cannot sleep. I’m also very tired. Can you find a way to help me? <br/><br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
Refugees and migrants detained in this detention centre get rice or pasta for lunch and dinner. For breakfast people receive bread with some cheese. Meals often have to be shared by many people. Food is prepared in-house and is served in large metal bowls to be shared by five to 10 people. Photographer: Sara Creta
Children in detention centre.<br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
A shipwreck survivor in detention centre.<br/>Her testimony: “We called for help, I was telling to the woman on the phone : “please come and rescue us”. She couldn’t speak Arabic, she was speaking English. I was repeating: “please there are a lot of children and women”. It was already late. People started to drown. I passed the phone to another person next to me. A lot of people died. Why they didn’t rescue us? We saw a plane. They gave us life rafts and we started to enter inside. I was screaming, calling for help. Everybody in that boat was trying to save his own life. I lost my husband, but thanks to God, I’m still alive. I was not wearing a life jacket, but there was one woman next to me, she only had only one leg, and I remember she didn’t know how to use her life vest and she didn’t know how to swim. I helped her to put it on and I have managed to save myself thanks to her, holding on to her live jacket. Finally I entered in a small life raft that the plane threw to us and I saved myself”<br/><br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Phpotographer: Sara Creta
A shipwreck survivor in detention centre, during consultation with MSF medical staff.<br/>His testimony: “On the boat there were many elderly, many women and children. Only some had the life jackets. Most of the people don’t know how to swim. Imagine you go to sea and you don’t know how to swim. They drowned straightaway. I remember the corps floating. There was also a Libyan family with us. They have lost their daughter [in the shipwreck].<br/>After their disembarkation, MSF treated survivors with chemical burns from petrol spills. “We managed to treat 18 urgent cases - among them, nine persons suffering from extensive chemical burns (up to 75% of the body)” says Jai Defransciscis, MSF nurse in Misrata. Photographer: Sara Creta
Shipwreck survivor in detention centre<br/>His story: “The man next to me didn’t know how to read the coordinates, so I took the phone and I read the coordinates. I was really happy that we were close to Malta. We ran out from this place. How can we live here? We don’t have security here. I have stayed for 2 years in Libya. I have been in Tripoli for the last three months. Did you see the situation there? I saw the tanks, the military cars on the street. Fighting. Why do you think I left Tripoli? I’m so tired and I don’t feel safe. Why they keep us here? Look at me, my body is not the same anymore. Photographer: Sara Creta
General view of the detention centre<br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
Men and boys in detention centre.<br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
MSF patient in detention centre with extensive chemical burns from petrol spills during the shipwreck.<br/>“Our medical team worked for several hours on the spot to assist the survivors in most serious conditions, says Jai Defransciscis, MSF nurse in Misrata. We managed to treat 18 urgent cases - among them, nine persons suffering from extensive chemical burns (up to 75% of the body).” Photographer: Sara Creta
Men in detention centre cells.<br/>On September 2nd, 276 people were brought by the Libyan coast guard to Khoms (120 km east of Tripoli) - among them 181 men, 42 women and 24 children including 2 babies less than 12 months old. They were then transferred to detention center where MSF works. Reportedly, they were in two rubber coats, one stopped due to engine failure, while the other boat continued to navigate for several hours before deflating and sinking. Survivors told MSF teams that over a hundred people died in the shipwreck. Photographer: Sara Creta
A shipwreck survivor in detention centre, suffering from extensive chemical burns from petrol spills.<br/>His testimony: “I haven’t been able to sleep since I arrived here. My body is hurting too much. I cannot walk to go the toilet. Today I feel very tired”.<br/>“Our medical team worked for several hours on the spot to assist the survivors in most serious conditions, says Jai Defransciscis, MSF nurse in Misrata. We managed to treat 18 urgent cases - among them, nine persons suffering from extensive chemical burns (up to 75% of the body).” Photographer: Sara Creta
A shipwreck survivor in detention centre, being treated by MSF medical staff. He has an old gunshot wound in the leg.<br/>His testimony: “We left Libya in a rubber dinghy in the night. We were rescued by the Libyan coast guard. We called the Italian authorities and they sent the Libyans to bring us back. While we were sailing we had a problem with our dingy, it was very hot and the dinghy was deflating. Also at one point the engine stopped. On the boat there were a lot of children and pregnant women. Families. We struggled to survive. We were in the water next to dead bodies. Europe should know what we are going through: we cannot stay in Libya. It’s very dangerous for us. On my left leg, I have a gun shot. My friends helped me to collect money as I wanted to go to Europe to find treatment for my leg. They told me its 10.000 Libyan dinar. I don’t have that money. This is my story, but there are many different stories here. We are not criminals, we are not thieves. We are struggling to survive. I feel very sad and disappointed. It’s painful. I lost a lot of friends. I don’t know my left and my right any more. I don’t know where I will go tomorrow. We need help, and we have been locked up as prisoners. I don’t know why they keep sending people back to Libya. We are running away from here. I am not asking the Italian government to accept all of us to their country, but don’t send us back to Libya. Photographer: Sara Creta