Refugees: Better to ‘die at sea’ than return to Libya

Survivors tell of horror at the hands of smugglers and say they would rather “die at sea” than return to Libya.

MSF rescue ship
The medical charity, MSF, said it had rescued more than 25,000 people since last year [Al Jazeera]

The anguished faces and the stories of desperate journeys have been supplanted by scenes of bloody attacks around the globe and racial tensions in the United States. But determination for a peaceful and prosperous existence has kept a steady stream of refugees flowing into Europe this year.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) more than 233,000 people have arrived in Europe during the first half of 2016. Most of them made the treacherous trip by sea in smuggler’s boats.

An Al Jazeera team boarded a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship to document something that has, sadly, become a routine: a medical team rescuing people who have been abandoned by smugglers in the dilapidated boats off of the Mediterranean coast of Libya.

Since last year, MSF, a medical charity, said it has rescued more than 25,000 people on boats in the Central Mediterranean. 

More than 2,950 people have died or gone missing so far this year while crossing the Mediterranean, according to the UNHCR. More than a million people reached Europe via the Mediterranean, mainly to Greece and Italy, in 2015 alone, and more 3,700 drowned or went missing. 

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Those who have survived tell horrific stories. People told MSF they had been enslaved and tortured until they could pay off their debts to smugglers. Women said they were raped and sold to multiple men. Their experiences in Libya were so traumatic, refugees said, they would rather “die at sea” than return to Libya.

Our journey began in the Port of Augusta in Sicily. The ship will travel 30 hours south to reach just about 25 nautical miles off the coast of Libya. Even getting that close is a security risk. Libya has become extremely unstable since the Arab Spring of 2011 and the death of President Muammar Gaddafi.

There are now two rival governments in two cities, each vying for power. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) is firmly established in the country. MSF said the group has threatened to carry out attacks in the area where our ship will be positioned to launch rescues.

But the MSF team is focused on saving as many lives as they can. They told Al Jazeera the best moment is the transformation they see when people are rescued. Once they know they are safe and have been greeted warmly, their faces soften. They are no longer commodities. They are being treated like human beings again.

Source: Al Jazeera