Europe or Death

The trend of increasing irregular crossings at external EU borders in 2015 is unprecedented. So far this year over 593,000 people have arrived by sea onto southern European shores. The largest number has come via Greece (454,000) then Italy (136.000) with smaller numbers arriving in Spain (3,000) and Malta (105). Greece is now the main entry point for asylum seekers and migrants to Europe arrived by sea, an average of 1,000 a day. The majority (60%) come from Syria – with other arrivals including people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia.

A high number of people keep coming and a high number of people keep dying. Over 3,000 people are believed to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea this year, while trying to cross the waters on unseaworthy overcrowded rubber or wooden boats on both the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes.

As a medical, humanitarian organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) could not justify sitting back and waiting for body bags to arrive on European shores: following the decision taken by the EU and Italy not to continue Mare Nostrum – their large scale search and rescue operation that was discontinued in October last year – we had no choice but to act. Three vessels with medical and marine MSF staff on board have taken the sea in May to launch a search and rescue emergency operation off the Libyan coasts aimed at saving lives and advocate for change.

I joined the “Dignity I” vessel in May and opened my eyes onto a whole new field of humanitarian action. Working on board of Dignity is being a powerful and unbelievable experience, unlike anything I have lived so far. However, while being on the sea is quite unique for MSF, we are doing here what we do in over 60 countries worldwide: respond to acute humanitarian needs and use whatever means it takes to get there and be effective. So here we are, patrolling the sea and saving people who risk their lives on leaky boats.

We rescue people by bringing them on board of ‘Dignity’ and taking care of them until we reach the Italian shores. We offer emergency medical help to those in needs, we assist the wounded, the sick, the pregnant women and take care of the babies and children, some as small as 5 days old. When they first come on board, most people are in shock and hardly believe that they are still alive – their eyes are empty, some fall on their knees to pray God, some others lie down powerless and just breathe. We distribute food, fresh water, new clothes and some basic items to make their trip more comfortable. Most importantly we welcome everyone with a smile and treat them with care, things most have not experienced in months.

During the time we are on board with our guests, usually 2 to 3 days, we literally are ‘on the same ship’ and a bond creates quite naturally. The proximity with them is beautiful. The 18,000 people that MSF has rescued so far are 18,000 individuals with a story behind. They all share so much of their lives with us; their voices speak of hardship, of cumulated vulnerabilities, but also of courage and resilience. These are people who flee from conflicts, torture, persecutions, human rights violations, various situations of violence, or from that kind of poverty that drive some to desperation. The extent of suffering that people endure in their countries of origin and on their journeys to safety is striking. Some are still children, and yet they travel thousands of miles on their own.

“I remember the sound of the bombs in Mogadishu, the explosions at night, the shooting, people were dying, they were bleeding…I decided to leave” (Amina, 17, from Somalia)

Most get on the rubber boat thinking that they are going to die, but their desperation and determination are stronger than anything – “When you get on the boat it’s Europe or death” told me one day Ley, a 17-year old Guinean fleeing his country after he was imprisoned and threatened of death for his political activism.

Displaced people are frequently victims of combinations of insecurity, poverty and lack of access to basic rights and humanitarian assistance. We know first-hand the devastation war inflicts in places of origin, where we also work, and we also hear horrific stories about what happens along the way. We work with people at almost every stage of their (forced) displacement. We begin treating patients in source countries like Syria, Iraq, Mali and Afghanistan, assist people in countries of first refuge like Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Kenya, in our projects in transit countries like Tunisia, Greece and Serbia, and in our projects in reception centres in Italy. The people we are treating in the Mediterranean are often the same people we treat in our more than 63 countries of worldwide operation.

All want a safe life for themselves and their families.

All guests on board talk about war-torn Libya as a place where violence, abuse, arbitrary detention, torture and death happen daily, and a place they tried to get out of as soon as they could to save themselves. Reports of sexual violence against women and girls in Libya’s prisons, but also during the desert crossing are common; many women also give birth in detention with no medical assistance.

“In Libya, even women are put in jail, some of them are pregnant and some give birth in jail. There are no doctors in jail, if you die you die. People are shattered” (Mohammed, 48, from Ethiopia)

It is important to remember that MSF boats, or indeed a large scale European funded search and rescue mission, are a much needed but temporary solutions. Our experience shows us that the only way to save the lives of the millions of people who are currently unable to live at home, is to create a safe and legal channels for people in need of asylum and protection for them to reach Europe and other safe haven countries.

The flow of forcibly displaced people is unlikely to stop, as new and protracted conflicts in areas such as Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Libya continue to force people to flee in search of safety. People will keep coming to save their lives, regardless of the approaching winter, regardless of restrictive policies, regardless of the walls or barriers that member states keep building. Their journeys will only become longer and more risky but they will keep coming. They are left with no alternatives.

“Have you ever asked this people why they take such risk, to come by sea to come to Europe?…it’s because we are living in hell and we are trying to survive” (Christiana, 24, Nigeria. 8-months pregnant)

MSF calls on the EU and its member states to bring timely and effective political responses to the current crisis and create safe and legal ways that can save thousands from dying. Focusing on fighting smuggling networks without opening real and meaningful alternatives for desperate people to find protection will force people to take even bigger risks. Whilst MSF is not in a position to advise on or define migration policies, we are certainly in a position to speak out about the consequence of restrictive migration policies which we see in our clinics and hospitals, and now boats, every day.

Laura Pasquero, Humanitarian Affairs Officer, MSF Sea rescue operation

Follow-us: @MSF_Sea