WHAT’S HAPPENING – Mediterranean Sea
I’m starting again on this breakdown of what’s happening in Europe. Here, I’ll give a brief rundown of what’s occurring between Libya and Italy, and I’ll talk about Italy next time. Here goes…
Most refugees entering Europe recently came via Libya as other North African borders are too difficult to cross from, due to enforced control. The political landscape in Libya (which is in the midst of a civil war, with three rival ‘governments’ competing for control of law enforcement bodies) allows for smuggling rings to operate and make vast sums of money from cramming vulnerable people into unseaworthy boats and sending them north, towards Italy.
The conditions on these boats are just beyond belief, but some are worse than others. There are no pleasure liners! Large wooden boats are regularly found with as many as 800 people on board, but most are on rubber boats, filled to the brim, with anywhere between 120-160 people on them. Weather conditions are a significant contributor to the numbers of boats that are sent out to sea, and although most boats are sent when the weather is good, a lot of boats are also sent when the weather conditions are really dangerous. The lack of seaworthiness of the boats, combined with the numbers of people, lead to difficult and dangerous rescues performed by organisations such as Seawatch, MSF, Proactiva, SOS Mediterranee, MOAS, and other smaller NGOs. Of course the Italian Coast Guard and military vessels are also involved in the search and rescue operations, but I’ll focus on the civilian efforts here.
Most boats are found in a search and rescue zone just north of Libya, and in international waters, but some boats make it through unspotted, and most of the boats are simply incapable of making it all the way to Italy. In 2016, over 5,000 people were reported to have died in the Mediterranean Sea, but nobody knows the real numbers, as many boats simply sink without a trace. Some of the bodies are washed up onto the shores, and go into the count. Many will remain lost forever, at the bottom of the sea. Their numbers are completely unknown, as though they never even existed at all.
Libya is being funded by European governments to increase its border security, and to stop and return the people leaving their shores. So they’re catching more boats than before, and returning the people to Libya and into conditions that sound unbearable. This has significantly reduced the numbers of boats making it into international waters. Exploitation in Libya, from the reports of hundreds of people who have escaped, is simply incredible. Regular reports are made of kidnappings, and torture where family members are held to ransom for financial gain are common place, as is slavery, sexual slavery, gang rape and other sexual assaults.
Many of the women who make it to the boats are pregnant, and the rescuers know better than to ask them where the father is. Families in their homelands are sent photos of those kidnapped and are forced to pay for their release. Many people work for months in sweatshops in order to pay for their crossing. Others have paid smuggling rings in their home countries for the complete journey. Many are lied to. Many are stolen from.
One of the people that I’ve met on the Seawatch 2 described the situation in Libya to me: “Libya is hell. There is no place on Earth worse than this. Even in my home, it is not like Libya”. He was not on his own. Many said similar things, reporting Islamic extremism as being a particular contributing factor to these hell like conditions.
The rescue teams work tirelessly all year round, at huge cost, in order to rescue those in the boats. There are military ships working in the area on behalf of European governments too, and often the civilian rescue fleet work in conjunction with the military vessels and the Italian Coast Guard.
At the peak of the summer, upwards of 6,000 people a day can be rescued in the SAR (search and rescue) zone, with some of the bigger ships, both civilian and military, convoying the people to Italy where they get processed. The ships return to the SAR zone as soon as they can, and are often involved in rescue operations as soon as they get back.
And so it goes. An incredible operation that really should not be happening. Safe routes to Europe would stop all of these unnecessary deaths. What gets me is that, pretty much without exception, I can buy a ticket and travel anywhere. My white English privilege is a golden ticket to anywhere. Others are less fortunate, and are not allowed to travel freely. Instead, they are forced to either stay in the conditions that they find unbearable or make these dangerous crossings.
The European deterrant of death by drowning, as a means to protect its borders is responsible for the numbers of men, women and children, like you and me being so neeedlessly lost from this planet. We have no idea how lucky we are!
Thanks to Frances Donnelly for helping me write this.
The picture is of a painting by Laura Ann Hyland, I think its brilliant. (I think that it's for sale if anyone wants to contact her???)