There is no more tragic place to witness the consequences of populist politics and anti-immigrant fears than the central Mediterranean Sea, where people are dying trying to reach safety in Europe.
Many flee violence and poverty in forgotten places across Africa and beyond, before being kidnapped by traffickers and horribly abused in Libya. In a final bid for freedom, they board crowded, flimsy rafts that launch from the Libyan shore into Mediterranean waters.
This year alone, more than 1,200 men, women and children have died trying to make this journey to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants project. These are just the deaths we know about.
This summer I served as the physician onboard the Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated by the aid organizations Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee that has assisted nearly 30,000 people since it launched in 2016. It was one of the ship’s last missions before the Italian government pressured Panama to revoke its registration after months of blocking rescue ships from Italian ports. In its current predicament, the Aquarius is unable to conduct search and rescue operations. Currently, there are no NGO aid vessels to rescue people crossing the central Mediterranean, and because of this people are drowning.
On missions, we rescue people from boats in distress, we pull drowning people from the water, and we give food, water and lifesaving medical care. After we stabilize our patients, we sit and talk to people and hear their stories.
I spoke with a young man who told me his brothers were targeted and killed last year during a violent conflict in Cameroon. He decided to leave his wife and young son behind because he was being threatened himself, and he was hopeful that if he made it to Europe he could eventually build a better life for his child. I could feel the pain in his words; he had no choice but to leave his loved ones behind.
Several Somali boys told me of the months they spent traveling from country to country, first across the sea to Yemen, then to Sudan and eventually through the Sahara to Libya. Each step was a gamble for a better life. Along the way they faced extortion, imprisonment and death.
An Eritrean boy told me he was kidnapped in Sudan and spent more than a year in captivity in Libya, where countless men and women are imprisoned by human traffickers and subjected to torture, rape and death. Another soberly described how his brother was shot in the head next to him, his body left behind in the desert.
Each person has horrific stories of their time in Libya. They pause and shake their heads as they remember, deciding how to replay their experiences for somebody who can’t even imagine. One Nigerian man told me, “My mouth can’t form the words to describe what happened to me in Libya.”
But he slowly opened up about his months spent in captivity. He described extreme sexual violence – rapes and genital mutilation – stories we hear repeatedly from both men and women who are trafficked in Libya.
A Somali teenager said he was held in Libya for seven months inside a small room with more than 300 people where they had one latrine, were never able to shower or change clothes and were given meager food and water.
And they were lined up every day, beaten with sticks and shouted at for money they didn’t have. He showed me scars on his back and arms as he mimicked the daily beating motion. The violence he lived through is written permanently in these scars on his body.
Libya is simply not a safe place for refugees and migrants. But instead of responding humanely through a dedicated search and rescue system in the Mediterranean, or by creating safe and legal ways to apply for asylum, the European Union has poured money into building up the Libyan coast guard, which intercepts thousands of migrants and refugees as they attempt to flee. They are returned to Libya and held in official detention centers in atrocious, inhumane conditions. And as conflict erupts again between warring militias in the capital, Tripoli, many of them are directly in the line of fire.
The stories we hear on the Aquarius highlight how people are repeatedly stripped of their humanity and dignity. And while they also have flashes of hope for a brighter future, each person understands that their difficult journey is far from over.
In today’s political climate, Doctors Without Borders and other organizations have had to fight to disembark each rescued person in a safe place where their human rights will be respected. We’ve had to take people as far away as Spain after closer countries such as Italy have repeatedly closed their ports and European governments have refused to find sustainable and humane solutions.
These difficulties grow as narratives of fear and hate toward migrants and refugees are repeated over and over, from Europe to America and elsewhere around the world. People are being treated as pawns by politicians unwilling to take responsibility for human lives. Borders close, walls are built and people are left to suffer and die.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.