[This report was originally issued by Human Rights Watch on 30 November 2017.]
The Aquarius, chartered by the nongovernmental organization SOS MEDITERRANEE to rescue migrants while heading for Europe, had motored to the oilfield to collect 36 people—mainly Syrians and Egyptians— picked up earlier by an oil company supply ship. From the bridge of the Aquarius, a spotlight revealed the tiny wooden boat, tethered to the stern of the supply ship, bobbing like a toy in the black water.
This spectacular backdrop exposes a cruel reality. The Mediterranean is the deadliest migration route in the world, with over 15,000 deaths recorded since 2014. So far this year almost 3,000 have gone missing or died, including 26 Nigerian girls in one tragic incident. That so many are willing to risk their lives is a testament to their desperation and determination to escape persecution, violence, and hardship at home. And it speaks volumes about the brutality asylum seekers and other migrants face in Libya.
Most of the women, men, and children crossing this sea are from sub-Saharan Africa, but Syrians, Bangladeshis, Moroccans, Algerians, and, increasingly, Libyans try the treacherous journey. Some are escaping violence and repression at home, including forced marriage and genital mutilation. Others are seeking economic opportunity and freedom to support their families. Many end up as victims of trafficking and abuse in Libya; the staggering level of violence there convinces many who might otherwise have stayed to flee again.
I spent two weeks on board the Aquarius, patrolling international waters near Libya. I had time to talk with the crew about the European Union (EU) policies that prompted this Mediterranean mission. While sailors kept the ship running, the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescue team and the Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) medical and humanitarian specialists from Europe, Australia and the US conducted drills to stay ready to save lives at sea.
For 10 long days in early October, I wondered whether we would make any rescues. I didn’t want people to be at risk, I just wanted our ship to be there if they needed it. Then the Aquarius rescued 606 people in 36 hours.
[Click here to download the full report.]