The European Union has reportedly spent more than 90 million euros ($100m) in funding and training the Libyan coastguard to stop the crossings.
NGO vessels, operating in the Mediterranean to carry out search and rescue, have been accused of trafficking people into Europe.
Al Jazeera speaks to Nicholas Romaniuk, search and rescue coordinator for SOS Mediterranee on board the rescue vessel Ocean Viking, about the pushback against rescue work, presence of the Libyan coastguard, deaths at sea, and how this job affects rescuers mentally and physically.
Al Jazeera: More than 11,500 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2016. How is the work of the rescuers being seen?
Nicholas Romaniuk: It’s very hard for me to sit and voice my opinion. I get very angry working out here. We’re trying to achieve something simple: save lives. This work is being hindered. Anywhere else in the world, that would be criminal but out here it’s accepted. That’s extremely frustrating.
It seems there’s complete disregard for human life and people dying in the Mediterranean. We’ve been recovering bodies of men, women and children over the last four years and seen things get worse.
There doesn’t seem to be an effort on the EU’s part to save lives out here.
Al Jazeera: How have search and rescue and the reaction to what you do changed since you started?
Romaniuk: When I started, we were working side by side with Italian coastguard and navy, European naval forces, Irish navy and probably eight other NGO vessels. Everyone was working together, realising that people were in immediate danger and needed to be saved. That has changed now with the criminalisation of NGOs trying to save lives. The politically motivated attacks on NGO vessels have complicated things more. UN agencies have recognised that by removing NGO vessels from the Mediterranean, they are making this voyage more dangerous and deadlier.
This is one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world. While we talk about the hostility of the sea, especially during winter, there’s a bit more hostility from the European states for sure. While the casualty figures are down, the chances of dying on this route have increased dramatically.
When they leave Libya, they have two options – either get intercepted and returned to Libya or die at sea. It’s unacceptable that, on the doorsteps of Europe, we’re allowing thousands and thousands to drown and do nothing while removing any hope they have of surviving.
Al Jazeera: Europe is investing heavily in the Libyan coastguard. Aren’t they rescuing people?
Romaniuk: Libyan coastguard do save people from drowning, but you can’t call it rescue because they take people from danger [sea] back to Libya and its detentions centres. People talk about violence – physical and sexual – forced labour and terrible conditions in those centres. One of them got bombed too. The last thing these people want is to go back to a place they escaped from.
We see that people are making this sea journey multiple times. If they get intercepted and brought back, they will repeat the cycle later. They get onto another boat and try again. We know this journey can be deadly the first time but the fact they would risk it again tells you what it’s like in Libya.
That situation in Libya is the push factor. The people we rescue say they are fleeing Libya for their lives. They have no other option but to get onto those unseaworthy boats and try and escape to Europe with absolutely no guarantee of anything ahead.
Al Jazeera: How effective is the Libyan coastguard in carrying out the rescue with NGOs?
Romaniuk: There’s no real relationship [between Ocean Viking and Libyan coastguard]. We have an obligation to inform authorities if we hear of a distress situation or we get involved. But contacting them is next to impossible. We did one rescue where it took seven hours to arrive at the boat’s last known location. We then searched for them for 24 hours. The team had very little sleep, and it took a lot of time and energy.
But it was very frustrating that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get through to the Libyans. We tried non-stop on phone, email and VHS but no luck.
Al Jazeera: What about the European rescue coordination centres covering the area?
Romaniuk: There is complete disregard by European authorities for the lives of those in distress. These boats are not made for sea. They are then loaded with men, women and children and sent out at sea without any life-saving appliances. If anything happens, it’s almost certain these people will die.
It hasn’t seemed to matter to the European authorities. No matter how much I stress to them, and repeatedly, that there are people in danger and I can’t get through to the Libyans, the answer has always been to keep trying them again. It’s very frustrating. They call themselves rescue coordination centres but they don’t seem to be caring about these people whose lives are in danger even though they are in a position to respond or coordinate. And that makes the Mediterranean and this journey even more dangerous.
Al Jazeera: There seems to be a lot of pushback and frustration in addition to the work and conditions. How are these affecting rescuers mentally and physically?
Romaniuk: It’s high levels of stress constantly. The fear you have when you see one of those rubber boats knowing what is possible – it can just fall apart in front of your eyes – never goes away. You know if that happens, people will die.
We deal with some very traumatic experiences at sea. And that leaves a mark. When you go home, you try and decompress and do normal stuff. It doesn’t work. You never switch off. You keep dealing with stress.
But you just carry on. It will probably take time to get over. You will need to fix some things in your life. Your body and mind get a beating while you’re out here, seeing some stuff that we see. It takes a toll on you, it really does.
You go back home and you don’t tell people what you do because you’re afraid of how they might react or what they’ll say.
But there’s nothing that motivates me and fulfils me as much as this. What we go through is nothing compared with what these people are going through. I hope this damage we take and the sacrifices we make, we can be proud of it one day.
Al Jazeera: Despite all this, some still regard rescuers as criminals and human smugglers …
Romaniuk: There’s no truth to it. It’s a narrative they’ve [politicians] come up with as it suits them. It’s frustrating that members of public would think that as well. Smugglers and traffickers do the complete opposite of what we do – they put people in danger.
That’s why rescues are becoming more difficult now. It used to affect me more. There are a lot of people on board who feel very strongly about what they do so they can brush it off. But it’s still sad this is being said about rescuers.
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity)