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Aboard a Mediterranean rescue ship, migrants share horror stories from Libya

July 19, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
The sea route from Libya to Italy is dangerous, even deadly, for African migrants and refugees who are desperate to cross. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from a Doctors Without Borders rescue ship that’s attempting to save people victimized in Libya from then dying at sea.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The International Organization for Migration reported today that almost 3,000 migrants and refugees have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year. Most of these deaths have taken place on the route linking North Africa with Italy. And among those who’ve survived the sea voyage, an astonishing 92 percent of all migrants say they have experienced violence; 50 percent say they have been held against their will by militia or gangsters.

Those figures come from surveys done by Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity known by its French acronym, MSF. Just today, 2,500 more people have been rescued.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant is now aboard an MSF rescue ship, Aquarius, and he filed this report from off the coast of Libya.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Nearly four days after leaving Sicily, the Aquarius is on station in international waters, northeast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, just outside that volatile country’s territorial limits.

After a recent surge of migrants, it’s all quiet. But then, from the bridge, they spot an overcrowded, flimsy rubber dinghy limping towards Italy. The Aquarius launches its rigid inflatables, or ribs, as men on board a Libyan fishing boat observe proceedings. One of the ribs is carrying life jackets to prevent drownings during the rescue.

First mate Andreas Tsigkanas:

ANDREAS TSIGKANAS, First Mate: They started by distributing the life jackets to the people in the boat. And as soon as all the people wear life jackets, they will start embarkation in one boat, around 18 people at a time. The other boat will stand by there for safety and to calm them down.

MAN: Aquarius, boat number one, coming back with 1-8 persons.

MAN: Copy, 1-9. Green light. Over.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Every one of the 107 West African men is given a welcoming health check by MSF veteran Erna Rijnierse.

DR. ERNA RIJNIERSE, Doctors Without Borders: We want to see everybody in their eyes to see how they are feeling, if they are not dehydrated, if they’re not having a fever. And I smell, if they don’t smell of fuel, because the combination of fuel and salty water makes very nasty burns.

So, if we smell fuel, we put them under a shower straight away and WE give them clean clothes.

Mark, this gentleman smells of fuel. Jacob, fuel.

MALCOLM BRABANT: There is a vast difference between these migrants and those who crossed from Turkey to Greece. The Greek arrivals usually had a mobile phone, some money, and a bag. The Africans have nothing, apart from the clothes they’re wearing.

Without exception, they have been stripped of possessions in Libya.

Nurse Jacob Goldberg.

JACOB GOLDBERG, Nurse: They are often held against their will in places where they are very cramped. They have things taken away from them. There are armed guards. And any possessions they do have get taken away just because they’re not allowed to have anything on them. They don’t have enough food to eat, or enough water to drink, enough clean water to drink, let alone have the possibility to have personal effects or personal items.

So, by the time they get to us on the rubber boats, they have got nothing, and they’re hungry and they’re thirsty and they’re desperate.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Europe would categorize most of the Africans taking this journey as economic migrants, because they originally left home with the intention of seeking greater prosperity.

But, once in Libya, they became desperate to flee the country’s lawlessness, false imprisonment, and what in some cases amounts to slavery, according to Ruby Pratka, of SOS Mediterranee, an NGO whose personnel operates the rescue ribs.

She says there is intense suffering for tens of thousands of these people.

RUBY PRATKA, SOS Mediterranee: You have forced extralegal confinement. You have sexual assault. You have whippings. Many, many, many of the people I have spoken to Here have said That there’s modern slavery in Libya.

They were systematically kidnapped and subjected to forced labor on farms, in houses, on building sites. They would work for long periods, and then get a gun held to their head when they demanded their salary.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Below-decks, an advocacy specialist takes testimony from three young French-speaking Africans. MSF has interviewed hundreds of people who have said that Libyan gangs use kidnapping and torture as a way to extort money from the migrants’ families, before forcing them into unseaworthy vessels.

Mohammed Kamara, from Ivory Coast, says he was falsely imprisoned four times.

MOHAMMED KAMARA, Refugee (through translator): The first prison, I was banged up for at least three months. The second prison, I have done at least six months. In the third, I also did a bit of time, and then there was a fourth, but I can’t go into it in much detail.

Libya is not a good country. It’s because I wanted to come out of Libya that I’m here today. I had the opportunity, and that’s why I risked my life to be here today.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Relieved that they have been saved from the deep, his friend Mustafa Diaby has a message for those people back home who’re contemplating following in their footsteps.

MUSTAFA DIABY, Refugee (through translator): I have a big message. My message is to stay at home. And if you really want to come to Europe, save the money and fly. Otherwise, going through the desert and ending up in Libya is bad advice, my friends.

I even put it in my prayers. I don’t want my own friends to take this road. It’s extremely dangerous. When we crossed the desert, there were 24 passengers who didn’t make it.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At the stern in the middle of the day, some of the vessel’s Muslim guests give thanks for their deliverance. Their rescue by the Aquarius guarantees them passage to Italy, although they will be starting their new lives with nothing, except possibly a crippling debt to the smuggling gangs.

They’re heading to a Europe that is reluctant to accept them, especially politicians who believe that humanitarian missions like this are helping the traffickers to profit.

DR. ERNA RIJNIERSE: People don’t make this journey for fun. People make this journey is because they don’t see any other way out. And as long as that situation continues, people will continue to come.

And we are here at sea is because people die at sea. And it’s very easy to say, these people shouldn’t come. But these people who say that have never been in a position where they have to flee.

RUBY PRATKA: I don’t think any rational person would decide to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a boat that I wouldn’t even put on a nice calm lake back in Canada, if they felt they had any other safe alternative.

If, by calling us a taxi service, they’re acknowledging that we pulled people out of the water who otherwise would have drowned, then we’re happy to be a taxi service.

MALCOLM BRABANT: After about three hours on board the Aquarius, the Italian authorities, who are controlling the operation in this part of the Med, decide that the migrants should be transferred to a coast guard vessel heading back to base.

What these people didn’t know was that the weather had been about to change for the worse when they were rescued by James Mahoney and his colleagues.

JAMES MAHONEY, SOS Mediterranee: These guys were very lucky, in the sense that rescue vessels were in the area. And if they’d left a little later, they may have been caught up in this weather, and the outcome of the operation would be a bit more uncertain.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Despite the risk of drowning, the number of people prepared to take a chance upon the waves is increasing.

So far this year, the number of people who have managed to get into Europe is around about a quarter-of-a-million, many of taking this extremely perilous route. But one in 100 of every one of those people who have attempted that crossing has died. To date in 2016, the numbers of deaths at sea is up by 50 percent on the same period last year.

According to the International Organization for Migration, that’s 3,000 deaths too many, and, it says, Europe has to do more to save lives.

As this rather undramatic, but successful operation reached its conclusion, there remained one last task, to mark and puncture the thin rubber dinghy to show that its passengers were safe and to deny smugglers the chance of recycling the craft.

Fate had decreed that this marble-colored shape wouldn’t mark yet another watery mass grave.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant off the Libyan coast.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Malcolm is still at sea with MSF, and will have more reporting for us in the coming days on rescues and recoveries in the Mediterranean. 

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