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Under threat of Libya, three humanitarian NGOs have withdrawn Mediterranean rescue operations

Libya will turn back asylum seekers fleeing to Europe to a world of lawlessness, arbitrary detention and extreme violence • MSF director: Europe implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella
15 August 2017, 7:39am
Three humanitarian NGOs have announced they have been forced to dock their vessels, as the Libyan Navy assumed control inside international waters up to 70 miles from their shoreline.

Save the Children’s Search and Rescue vessel said it would dock in Malta as a result of issues raised by the Libyan Navy, which pose uncertainty for our response. The Vos Hestia remains on standby and ready to respond, once vital safety and security assurances are in place.

Médècins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Sea-Watch said they would follow suit.

More than 2,200 people have drowned already this year on top of 4,500 last year.

On 11 August 2017, the Libyan authorities publicly announced the establishment of a search and rescue (SAR) zone and restricted the access to humanitarian vessels into the international waters off the Libyan coasts.

Immediately afterwards, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome warned MSF about security risks associated with the threats publicly issued by the Libyan Coast Guard against humanitarian NGOs operating in international waters.

The MSF medical support team will still assist the rescue capacity of the SOS Méditerranée-run boat Aquarius, which is currently patrolling in international waters.
The MSF medical support team will still assist the rescue capacity of the SOS Méditerranée-run boat Aquarius, which is currently patrolling in international waters.
Following these additional restrictions on independent humanitarian assistance and increasing blockade of migrants within Libya, MSF decided to temporarily suspend the search and rescue activity of its ship, Prudence. The MSF medical support team will still assist the rescue capacity of the SOS Méditerranée-run boat Aquarius, which is currently patrolling in international waters.

“If these declarations are confirmed and the orders are implemented we see two grave consequences – there will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya,” said Annemarie Loof, MSF’s operational manager. “If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, there will be fewer ships in the area to rescue people from drowning. Those who will not drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya, which we know is a place of lawlessness, arbitrary detention and extreme violence.”

These declarations came barely a week after the announcement of the Italian Navy deployment inside Libyan waters aimed at increasing the capacity of Libyan coastguards to intercept migrant and refugees and send them back to Libya.

Brice de le Vingne, MSF’s Director of Operations, accused European states and Libyan authorities of jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. “This is an unacceptable assault on people’s lives and dignity.”

“MSF refuses to be coopted into a system that aims at all cost to block people from seeking safety,” de le Vingne said. “We call on the EU and Italian authorities to stop implementing deadly containment strategies that trap people in a country at war with no regard for their protection and assistance needs. Safe and legal pathways for refugees and migrants are urgently needed in order to reduce unnecessary death and suffering.”

Save the Children operation director Rob MacGillivray said: “Our experienced team on board are concerned that in this situation boats will either be turned back to Libya, or, migrants will die before they leave the newly extended Libyan SAR zone. People are crossing on flimsy rubber boats that take in water and don’t carry enough fuel. It is also not clear if by entering that area, our operation may be in danger. What is clear is that life could be lost amid this confusion with less rescue capacity in the area.

“Save the Children is ready and eager to deploy our vessel to the rescue zone. However we have a duty to ensure the safety of our team and the viability of the rescue mission. We need to have these assurances in place, before we can continue with the rescue mission as intended. The safety of our staff and crew is paramount and without assurances we would have to consider the possibility of a suspension – an outcome none of our staff or crew want to face.”

Save the Children said it was concerned that other SAR actors have had to take the decision to suspend their operations, diminishing rescue capacity further. 

“We understand how difficult this decision is and respect the action of those NGOs who have been working to save lives in the Mediterranean. The necessary pause in operations from charity rescue ships likes ours and others will undoubtedly put lives at risk. Search and Rescue capacity is diminishing but the need continues," said MacGillivray.  

Sea-Watch director Michael Buschheuer also said it was with a heavy heart that the NGO would have to temporarily suspend its planned rescue missions after the Libyan government’s indefinite and unilateral extension of their territorial waters – in connection with an explicit threat against the private NGOs.

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.