This morning, a capsized boat drowned at least five people off the coast of Libya just before dawn, including a woman and child.
Migrants continue to risk their lives by embarking on perilous journeys by boat across the Mediterranean. What’s worse, many say they prefer death to being returned to the places they’re fleeing.
On the morning of Sunday, May 2, a wooden boat carrying 97 migrants en route to Europe became stranded off the coast of Libya.
Their engine had broken down just as a storm was coming. Migrants on the boat called the emergency hotline of Alarm Phone, an organization that helps migrants in distress on the Mediterreanean Sea.
"They were saying that they needed something to support them, even if it wasn’t to rescue them. But at least not to let them die."
“They were saying they were dying. They were saying that they needed something to support them, even if it wasn’t to rescue them. But at least not to let them die,” said Deanna Dadusc, an Alarm Phone volunteer and United Kingdom-based lecturer, who was on duty that day.
“They were saying that the sea was really big, that the waves were high and that the boat was really small,” she continued. Dadusc stayed on the phone with the migrants for hours as a storm approached. Alarm Phone later published a segment of the phone conversation online.
The migrants told Dadusc that most of them were Egyptians. Some had lived in Italy, but had been deported. Now, they were trying to reach Europe again, through one of the most dangerous and difficult migrant routes in the world: the central Mediterranean.
Throughout the hours-long saga, Alarm Phone contacted European and Libyan authorities — as is detailed in an account published on their website.
“Only in [the] moment when I found out that a merchant vessel was going there, I could reassure them and say rescue is coming,” said Dadusc.
According to a statement from the Italian coast guard to Alarm Phone, Italian authorities coordinated with the Libyan coast guard to send the merchant vessels.
“And then the merchant vessel didn’t rescue,” said Dadusc.
Instead, the vessels waited nearby for the Libyan coast guard to arrive.
Then, according to the United Nations refugee agency, the migrants on the boat were to be returned to Libya, and placed in a detention center in Tripoli.
Dadusc said this was a classic example of the “pushback” policies that are endangering migrants.
“Both Italy and Malta say, ‘Oh they’re not in Europe so it’s not our responsibility. So if we’re pushing them back, well, it’s not really a pushback, it’s still Libyan responsibility.’ When in fact it’s international waters,” argued Dadusc.
Additionally, international law requires people rescued at sea be returned to a safe port, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has explicitly said that Libya is not a safe disembarkation point for migrants rescued at sea.
The flip-flopping over responsibility has deadly ramifications. Migrants in unfit boats are left stranded in the open water, desperately awaiting rescue from overstretched nongovernmental organizations.
This year, more than 620 people have died in the Mediterranean.
“People crossing these waters need assistance, and need search and rescue capacity in order to reduce loss of life.”
“People crossing these waters need assistance, and need search and rescue capacity in order to reduce loss of life,” said Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman with the International Office for Migration (IOM).
Msehli argued that search and rescue capacity should be coordinated by governments.
“People will continue to take these dangerous routes unless there [are] legal routes, pathways and protections for them from the impact of smugglers and the impacts of trafficking groups,” she said.
Migrants who are rescued and returned to Libya, are often subject to the same smuggling and trafficking risks they thought they had left behind.
“In Libya, they use discrimation against the Black people."
“In Libya, they use discrimation against the Black people. There’s no government here. We are working without money, and they used to kill Africans,” Mohammed, a Sudanese migrant in Libya, told The World over the phone.
He asked to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted by Libyan smugglers or authorities.
Like many Sudanese migrants in Libya, Mohammed fled violence and poverty in Sudan’s Darfur region, and arrived in Libya in 2018.
While Libya does have a new interim government — and is on the pathway to democratic elections in December — it continues to be unsafe for migrants.
Mohammed plans to make his second attempt to cross the Mediterranean as soon as he can, despite the risks.
“I’m still working here to find enough money to cross the sea. But most of my friends who were with me at home, they drowned in the sea. [In] 2018, 2019. Even two weeks ago, my friends, 16 of them, they drowned in the sea.”
In the April shipwreck he’s referring to, more than 130 migrants lost their lives at sea.
On his first attempt to cross the Mediterrean a few years ago, Mohammed said his boat was intercepted by the Libyan coast guard.
"Most of us prefer to die in the sea in order to [not] come back to Libya."
“All of us [tried] to jump into the sea. Most of us prefer to die in the sea in order to [not] come back to Libya. All of us were angry. We don’t know...we have no choice,” he said.
After being returned to Libya, Mohammed said he spent a brief time in a detention center — which he said only served one meal a day, and was so crowded that some migrants had to sleep standing up.
The UN has been calling on Libya to close its migrant detention centers, which are managed by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), a body operating under Libya’s Ministry of Interior.
Even children are being detained there, said Abdulkadir Musse, special representative for United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) office in Tripoli.
Two weeks ago, 125 mostly unaccompanied children were intercepted en route to Europe, and returned to Libya.
“More children are also being intercepted and returned to Libya since the beginning of 2021. And most of these children are brought to detention upon disembarkation in Libya,” he said.
He worries the situation could worsen over the summer, when the tides will be low and more migrants are expected to try crossing the Meditereanean.