LAST Saturday evening, November 6th, the Italian Coast Guard informed the bridge of the German charity rescue ship SEA-EYE 4 that the Italian authorities had designated Trapani as the port of disembarkation for more than 800 rescued people on board.
The Italian Foreign Office confirmed the assignment a few minutes later.
The SEA-EYE 4 was expected to reach the port on Sunday afternoon. Until then, the rescued people would have to spend a third night on board the ship – some of them had already spent five nights on board the rescue vessel.
The weather had deteriorated visibly over the past hours and the Italian coast guard had allowed the SEA-EYE 4 to approach the coast earlier to find shelter from the wind and weather.
From last Tuesday to last Thursday, the ships SEA-EYE 4 of Sea-Eye e. V. and RISE ABOVE of Mission Lifeline e. V. had saved more than 800 lives within 48 hours in seven joint operations.
Sea-Eye is supported on board by the Bonn-based organisation German Doctors e. V. with an on-board doctor and financial support for hospital operations.
‘Our mission doctor Daniela Klein and the entire crew have done an unimaginable job in the last few days – over 800 rescued people have pushed not only the ship itself, but everyone on board to the limit.
‘It is imperative that those rescued can receive medical care ashore. That is why we are incredibly relieved that the SEA-EYE 4 can now head for a safe port and that the people will be brought to safety after many days of uncertainty,’ said Dr Harald Kischlat, Chairman of German Doctors e. V.
‘We are relieved and overjoyed that the difficult hours for our crew and the rescued people will end on Sunday and that these people will then finally be safe in Italy. We are appalled that Malta’s failure to provide assistance led to such an exceptional situation.
‘The EU states must urgently admonish Malta to ensure that the Rescue Coordination Centre in Valletta finally responds to emergency calls again and coordinates sea emergencies, regardless of the colour of the skin or the origin of the people who are in distress at sea,’ says Gorden Isler, Chairman of Sea-Eye e. V.
- UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, evacuated 172 vulnerable asylum-seekers out of Libya to safety in Niger on the evening of 4th November.
It was the first evacuation flight to Niger in more than a year, after the Libyan authorities lifted a blanket ban on humanitarian flights.
‘UNHCR is relieved to see the resumption of these life-saving evacuation flights,’ said the agency’s Chief of Mission in Libya, Jean-Paul Cavalieri. ‘However, considering the limited number of places, evacuation can only be a solution for extremely vulnerable people, in urgent need of security and protection.’
Many of those evacuated had previously been detained in extremely dire conditions, were victims of trafficking or had experienced violence in Libya.
The group included families, children travelling alone, and a baby born just a few weeks ago. Evacuees said they were relieved to be leaving Libya.
UNHCR said it ‘welcomes the intervention of the Libyan Presidential Council, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office, who worked to end the suspension of the lifesaving humanitarian flights.’
The evacuation took place through the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) established in 2017 thanks to the government of Niger, which generously agreed to temporarily receive on its territory refugees facing life-threatening situations in Libya so that UNHCR can work on identifying durable solutions for each of them.
In Niger, UNHCR provides mental health care support to those who have faced traumatic events while in Libya, as well as access to educational and vocational training opportunities.
So far, 3,361 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, of whom 3,213 have departed from Niger to third countries on resettlement and complementary pathways.
- Meanwhile, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity said on Sunday, October 31, that child refugees ‘describe Libya as hell’.
‘They are playing now, they smile and befriend each other, they seem like any other young people,’ said Julie Melichar, humanitarian affairs officer on board MSF’s search and rescue vessel Geo Barents. ‘But they are no longer just children or teenagers – not after what they have been through.’
Melichar was talking about the youngest survivors rescued by MSF in its most recent mission in the central Mediterranean, when teams saved 367 people in less than two days. More than 40 per cent of them were under the age of 18 and 140 of them were travelling alone.
Such a high number of young people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea – considered to be the world’s deadliest migration route – is alarming in itself. But travelling without a parent or trusted adult makes unaccompanied minors one of the most vulnerable groups of people on the move, stressed MSF.
Without the support of trusted adults, these children and teenagers face particular and significant protection risks. They are easy prey for people smugglers, traffickers, abusers and exploiters.
On their journeys they risk forced labour, extortion, arbitrary detention and physical violence, including sexual violence.
These young people embark on their journeys for a whole range of reasons. In many cases, they are fleeing war-torn countries, prosecutions, extreme poverty, human rights violations and limited access to education and health services.
Many of those rescued on Geo Barents’ most recent mission come from Somalia, Eritrea, Mali and Cameroon.
‘One of the boys we rescued recently was just 12 years old when he left his country,’ said Melichar. ‘He explained to us, that his father was killed because he wanted to protect his son from forced enrolment in the army.’
Melichar added: ‘His mother saw no choice but to send him away from the country to save him (from forced conscription). He recounted, that when he reached southern Libya, he was kept in captivity and tortured for seven months before he was able to escape.’
Whatever the reason for leaving their countries of origin, Libya is the point at which there is no turning back.
In Libya, there is a system to extort money from people on the move. Many migrants and refugees are kidnapped by militias and armed groups, and are held captive.
Those who have money can buy their freedom; those who do not are tortured or made to do forced labour until their families or friends can pay for their release. This spiral of exploitation can last for months or even years.
Children and teenagers are not spared such atrocities. ‘Many of the young people we rescued told us they had escaped arbitrary detention, abuse and exploitation in Libya,’ says Melichar.
‘Some had faced the loss of friends along their journey, since many people disappear or are killed in Libya.’
The MSF officer continued: ‘One young boy told me that he was travelling with five very good friends. All five friends died in detention centres in Libya, and then this boy found himself alone.
‘He said, he started creating trouble and yelling on purpose, hoping that the guards would beat and kill him, and he could be reunited with his friends.
‘That would be too much for any human being to cope with. How can this be happening to children?’
MSF medics on Geo Barents are providing basic healthcare as well as psychological support to all the survivors. Once they arrive on land, it is crucial that they receive continued care.
‘Many of the unaccompanied minors on board seem to be coping quite well with being on the ship,’ says Melichar. ‘They’ve created a community together, befriending each other and acting like any other teenagers. But regardless of this, we know that they have deep scars inside that won’t heal by themselves.
‘This is why such a vulnerable group cannot be forgotten once they arrive on land. They must be granted specialist protection, given safe shelter suitable to the needs of children, and provided with medical and psychosocial services by competent organisations.’
An earlier MSF report of 26 October, said that after five rescues in less than two days, almost 400 people have been rescued and brought aboard the Geo Barents search and rescue (SAR) ship in the Central Mediterranean.
‘Many of the survivors are unaccompanied minors and small children,’ they warned. ‘With dangerous weather conditions looming, we are now calling on Italy to provide a place of safety for these vulnerable people as soon as possible.
‘Amid very harsh weather conditions, our teams conducted five challenging rescues. Many of the survivors were suffering from hypothermia after prolonged exposure to the elements or falling in the water.
‘Survivors also faced seasickness, dehydration, loss of appetite and fuel inhalation. Among the 367 people on board, 172 are minors and 134 of them are unaccompanied.’
‘Imagine being on an overcrowded boat without a life vest. Imagine being surrounded by waves up to three metres high, while your clothes are soaked and you are suffering from fuel inhalation,’ says Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator on board the Geo Barents.
‘Imagine running out of food and water as time wears on, having no protection from the sun, wind, and rain. Imagine calling for help and no one answers. This is the reality we are witnessing at sea.’
On the morning of 22 October, the vessel conducted its first rescue. Thirty six survivors were brought on board the Geo Barents from a wooden boat. At the same time they received a new alert – this time a rubber boat in distress located several hours away.
‘We got there at night and it was completely dark. The waves were more than three metres high at one point, and there was a lot of wind,’ says Leo Southall, MSF deputy search and rescue (SAR) team leader on board the Geo Barents. ‘The boat was in very fragile condition and the people on board had inhaled fuel fumes.’
After two intense hours, the team was able to get all 65 survivors on board. One person had to be brought on board by stretcher, and while the survivors were relieved, many were anxious and exhausted after being at sea for more than 24 hours.
That same night the Geo Barents received a third alert – another overcrowded wooden boat was in distress. Although authorities were aware of the situation, no one had responded or intervened.
It took the team nine hours to reach the boat, while neither authorities nor other nearby vessels provided assistance.
Willemen said: ‘This is another clear example of how nearby coastal states are refusing to take any responsibility for people in distress at sea.
‘The boat had been in dangerous waters for three days, with 100 people on board, including 42 children. Leaving people to drift at sea for days is unacceptable.’
She added: ‘Once again, we are witnessing how European migration control policies are endangering the lives of thousands of people, by having no proactive search and rescue capacity at sea and failing to provide a response to all distress calls. It’s unacceptable that NGOs are left to fill the deadly gap.’
On 24 October, the MSF SAR team performed another critical rescue of a rubber boat in distress, which was filling up with water. Seventy-one people were rescued and are now safely on board the Geo Barents, which now has 367 people on board in total.
‘The past couple of days have illustrated the humanitarian catastrophe taking place at the southern border of Europe,’ said Willeman, adding:
‘With only humanitarian vessels monitoring the world’s deadliest migration route, the need for more search and rescue capacity is desperately needed.
‘We are now calling on Italy to provide a place of safety as soon as possible. An extremely rough weather forecast is looming and we are very concerned, having almost 400 survivors on board who have been through enough.
‘Their suffering must end.’