Seventeen-year-old Ahmed* is from Darfur, Sudan, a region plagued by ongoing violence. He fled to Libya, where he was bought and sold multiple times, received no payment for his work, and was beaten by his “owners.” When he tried to escape, he was shot. Yet he made it on to a flimsy boat crossing the Mediterranean and was eventually picked up by a Médecins Sans Frontières search and rescue boat.
Our teams noticed him struggling to walk, provided medical care for his then six-day-old gunshot wound and disembarked him in Italy where he will hopefully find the safety and security he seeks. This teenage boy is one of more than 69,000 people rescued by our teams on the Mediterranean Sea since we launched search and rescue operations in 2015. Ahmed is among the world’s most vulnerable – people fleeing protracted conflict in places like Syria and Iraq, forced conscription in Eritrea, or extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.
To be clear, under international law, it is not a crime to flee violence or war, or to seek safety by crossing international borders. But increasingly, refugees and asylum seekers are being treated like criminals through measures including tough deterrence and detention policies and even abuse from authorities. European states have barred land entry into and throughout Europe. Walls and barbed wire serve to stamp out protection and assistance. Now the focus is turning to Libya, where with European investment it is hoped that stronger controls on land and at sea will prevent people fleeing towards Europe in the first place. In Libya our teams assist migrants who are held in indefinite detention, often facing unpaid labour, extortion of their families for their release, torture and sexual violence. They tell us they would rather risk death at sea than remain here.
"In Libya our teams assist migrants who are held in indefinite detention, often facing unpaid labour, extortion of their families for their release, torture and sexual violence. They tell us they would rather risk death at sea than remain here."
My colleague, international MSF President Dr Joanne Liu recently personally visited detention centres in Tripoli, saying ‘people are packed into dark, filthy rooms with no ventilation, living on top of one another… Women are raped and then made to call their families back home asking for money to be freed. The detention of migrants and refugees in Libya is rotten to the core. It must be named for what it is: a thriving enterprise of kidnapping, torture and extortion. And European governments have chosen to contain people in this situation. People cannot be sent back to Libya, nor should they be contained there.”
In Australia, we have seen the “criminalisation” of asylum seekers through the deceptive use of language like “queue jumpers” or “illegal boat people”, and most recently the dialogue shift to one where asylum seekers are labelled a national security threat. This dialogue is becoming mainstream worldwide, and attempts to justify inhumane responses to the movement of people by framing the right to seek protection and asylum as a criminal activity. Criminalisation is also occurring when it comes to setting policy. Asylum seekers are locked up indefinitely in offshore camps, where they are treated like criminals for exercising their legal right to seek freedom from persecution.
"This dialogue is becoming mainstream worldwide, and attempts to justify inhumane responses to the movement of people by framing the right to seek protection and asylum as a criminal activity"
Criminalisation of assistance
The trend of the criminalisation of people forced to flee now also extends to the criminalisation of acts of assistance by individuals and organisations who step in to help. In Europe, individuals assisting homeless migrants on the streets of Calais report they must avoid police patrols for fear of getting into trouble. Humanitarian organisations providing search and rescue activities on the Mediterranean, like our own, are increasingly accused by the media, politicians, and European agencies of aiding and abetting criminal trafficking groups.
This is despite the fact that humanitarian organisations, along with the Italian Coastguard, are now the only groups carrying out proactive search and rescue activities on this stretch of sea between Libya and Italy. The Italian Government’s Mare Nostrum rescue operation closed in 2014. The EU is simultaneously withdrawing from their own responsibilities and then vilifying the NGOs who step in to pick up the pieces. We recently decided not to sign the EU’s Code of Conduct for NGOs operating rescue ships, because we believe it will reduce search and rescue capacity on the Mediterranean, with potentially dire humanitarian consequences. As the search and rescue operations of Médecins Sans Frontières have recently come under legal attack in Italy, I would like to clarify for the record that our activities at sea are solely aimed at saving lives. Every operation is strictly monitored, we work in international waters, with all rescues coordinated directly through the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, and in compliance with national and international laws.
" I would like to clarify for the record that our activities at sea are solely aimed at saving lives"
In the hands of smugglers
What we witness across our operations is that the lack of safe passage options is simply re-channelling displaced people to risk their lives on dangerous routes in the hands of smugglers and criminal gangs. We have seen the same thing in Europe, the US and Australia. It is these restrictive migration policies that fuel the criminal underworld – not NGOs saving the lives of a fortunate few. With more than 5,000 deaths in 2016, the Mediterranean Sea is the world’s most deadly migratory route. The EU’s focus on fighting smugglers rather than offering alternative safe routes continues to cause deaths at sea. There is also a cruel irony in this approach, as it is the EU’s policies that keep the smugglers in business in the first place. The criminalisation narrative is a smokescreen for the real issue – the need for safe and legal alternatives to reach the EU, and the need for a more proactive role from EU member states in rescuing people in distress in the Mediterranean.
We are not making a case for a world without borders. States fundamentally have the right to manage the migration of people but they also have an obligation to control migration in a way that minimises human suffering. Médecins Sans Frontières rejects policies that generate suffering, endanger lives and criminalise people on the move, and the notion that those who assist them are, by extension, supporting criminal activity.