Would we rather stop our search and rescue operations completely – and risk people drowning – or return rescued migrants and refugees back to Libya?
It’s a strange question with which to kick off the working day on board our rescue ship, the Vos Hestia. But it’s one we’ve been forced to ask ourselves.
By all the accounts I’ve heard personally, Libya is hell on earth. A tightrope of kidnapping, extortion, torture, detention, rape and slave labour.
Libya is simply not a safe place to return anyone to.
The answer is clear: returning people to Libya is not something we can support.
He’d rather have died than return
Onboard the Vos Hestia we see the astounding innocence of migrants and refugees.
From the Nigerian children who didn’t realise the sea was salty, to Guinean children who want to be professional footballers when they grow up.
Most children we pull on board only have a lone plastic bag containing their worldly possessions. They’re willing to risk it all for a better future.
My Syrian colleague speaks from experience. He says he’d rather have died than returned to the brutal conflict he fled. He thinks most refugees would agree.
The escape to Europe is a do or-die journey for most, and therein lies the quandary.
As a humanitarian organisation, we’ve made a principled decision to never return anyone we have rescued to Libya.
Libyan Coastguard’s intervention
This decision has been forced on us because of a change in circumstances.
Amid conflicting reports, the Libyan Coastguard have announced that they will patrol the sea any-where between 50 and 70 nautical miles from their coast. They’ll take anyone they find back to Libya.
This affects a huge chunk of the Mediterranean that many argue is international waters – and where 2,200 people have drowned already this year.
We have rescued 8,000 people from this area since we launched our rescue ship last September. This was in response to a 30% increase in migrants dying en route to sanctuary, compared to 2015.
Now our team, as well as other charities operating rescue ships in the Mediterranean, is increasing-ly concerned that we could be forced to handover anyone we’ve rescued to the Libyan Coastguard — only for these wretched souls to be returned to re-live the horrors they’ve just escaped.
This is not the plan. It is one of the reasons that has forced several charities like us to face the pro-spect of suspending operations.
International law is clear
Despite the depiction of chaos by politicians, the high seas are in fact governed by very clear inter-national maritime laws.
When we pluck terrified non-swimmers, from sinking rubber boats, we’re acting in line with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea to “proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress”.
When it’s suggested we are providing a ‘ferry service’ to Europe, what we’re actually doing is abid-ing by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
According to the Convention, drawn up after the Second World War, countries agreed not to “return [ref-ugees]… to territories where life or freedom would be threatened”.
Shifts on the Vos Hesta are no cruise. Staff are working 20 hour days, packing and distributing hundreds of emergency kits, containing what could be the first taste of food and water in days for those rescued.
We’re a team of doctors, nurses, lawyers and child protection specialists dedicated to saving lives – not providing tourist transport.
Is history repeating itself?
The 1951 Refugee Convention was a global response to the Holocaust and the subsequent fallout of millions of desperate, persecuted people being forced from their homes.
Let me give a more recent example.
Back in 2009, Berlusconi, then the Italian Prime Minister, and Muammar Gaddafi, then the Libyan leader, made a verbal agreement that migrant boats found in the Mediterranean would be returned to Libya.
These people were then brought to makeshift camps in Libya, and left to languish for years without asylum claims being heard.
Nearly a decade on, and almost 15,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean in the last four years alone. The death toll is only getting worse.
Slamming doors shut doesn’t work
We know from experience that slamming shut borders and abandoning humanitarian principles does not solve the problem.
The will to survive pushes families to take even more dangerous routes to escape conflict, persecution and extreme poverty.
The people we rescue will be classified as refugees or migrants when they reach dry land. They’ll either claim international protection, be sent home or, if they’re a lone child, they’ll enter the care system.
We’re not a pro-migration charity, we don’t want to encourage false hope.
The overriding priority of any humanitarian organisation is to do no harm.
How can we save people and yet condemn them to be sent back to a living hell?