Doctors Without Borders decries 'blockade' on boat migrants in Libyan waters

Doctors Without Borders says "hostility" from Libya has forced it to suspend offshore rescues of boat migrants by its ship, Prudence. Libya recently told non-governmental groups to stay away.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF in French) accused the European Union and Libya of creating a "blockade" in Libyan coastal waters that would result in more Mediterranean deaths and more migrants stuck in Libyan detention.

Last month, Italy approved a naval mission in Libyan waters to train and support the coastguard of the country's UN-backed government in Tripoli, whose authority is challenged by other Libyan factions.

NGOs being shut out?

Earlier this week, Libya said it was establishing a "search and rescue" zone off its coast - a move MSF said would extend Libyan patrols into international waters, where humanitarian groups pick up asylum seekers from flimsy boats.

Previously, non-governmental groups (NGOs) had conducted search and rescue operations as close as 11 nautical miles off the Libyan mainland.

The MSF, with its vessel Prudence, is one of nine NGOs involved in migrant rescues in the Mediterranean – rivalled by an anti-migrant group – since the Balkans route was virtually shut to refugees from early 2016

Lybien eine spanische Krankenschwester auf dem Rettungsschiff Golfo Azzuro

A nurse holds a child on the NGO rescue ship "Golfo Azzuro" which is run by the Proactiva group

Assault on dignity

MSF's Director of Operations, Brice de le Vingne, on Saturday accused European states and Libyan authorities of "jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety" and assaulting their dignity.

"The recent developments represent another worrying element of an increasingly hostile environment for lifesaving operations," he said.

Another aid group active in the Mediterranean, Proactiva Open Arms, also criticized the EU, with its founder Oscar Camps tweeting: "the first NGO out, this is just what the EU wants."

Loris De Filippi, president of MSF's Italian arm said, "We are suspending our activities because now we feel that the threatening behavior by the Libyan coastguard is very serious ... we cannot put our colleagues in danger."

MSF said medical staff would, however, keep working from a ship operated by another aid group, SOS Mediterranee, while the Prudence remained idle.

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'Fewer illegal immigrants'

Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League, asserted that MSF's move would result in "thousands fewer illegal immigrants for Italians to maintain."

If migrants are intercepted while trying to cross to Europe and are then taken back to Libya, they often face slave labor and sexual violence, according to multiple reports.

13,000 deaths in four years

Over the past four years, almost 600,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, the vast majority setting sail from largely lawless Libya in flimsy vessels operated by people smugglers. More than 13,000 migrants have died trying to make the crossing.

General Khalifa Hifter, a Bengazi-based commander who rivals Tripoli and is aligned with Libya's eastern-region parliament, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Saturday the presence of Italian military vessels in Libyan waters was unacceptable.

The newspaper quoted Hifter as saying he would not attack them.

The UN's migration agency counted 114,000 migrant arrivals since the beginning of 2017 until July 30, with almost 85 percent arriving in Italy.


Fleeing war and poverty

In late 2014, with the war in Syria approaching its fourth year and Islamic State making gains in the north of the country, the exodus of Syrians intensified. At the same time, others were fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Niger and Kosovo.


Seeking refuge over the border

Vast numbers of Syrian refugees had been gathering in border-town camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan since 2011. By 2015, with the camps full to bursting and residents often unable to find work or educate their children, more and more people decided to seek asylum further afield.


A long journey on foot

In 2015 an estimated 1.5 million people made their way on foot from Greece towards western Europe via the "Balkan route". The Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel within much of the EU, was called into question as refugees headed towards the wealthier European nations.


Desperate sea crossings

Tens of thousands of refugees were also attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats. In April 2015, 800 people of various nationalities drowned when a boat traveling from Libya capsized off the Italian coast. This was to be just one of many similar tragedies - by the end of the year, nearly 4,000 refugees were reported to have died attempting the crossing.


Pressure on the borders

Countries along the EU's external border struggled to cope with the sheer number of arrivals. Fences were erected in Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia and Austria. Asylum laws were tightened and several Schengen area countries introduced temporary border controls.


Closing the open door

Critics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open-door" refugee policy claimed it had made the situation worse by encouraging more people to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe. By September 2016, Germany had also introduced temporary checks on its border with Austria.


Striking a deal with Turkey

In early 2016, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement under which refugees arriving in Greece could be sent back to Turkey. The deal has been criticised by human rights groups and came under new strain following a vote by the European Parliament in November to freeze talks on Turkey's potential accession to the EU.


No end in sight

With anti-immigration sentiment in Europe growing, governments are still struggling to reach a consensus on how to handle the continuing refugee crisis. Attempts to introduce quotas for the distribution of refugees among EU member states have largely failed. Conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere show no signs coming to an end, and the death toll from refugee sea crossings is on the rise.

ipj/jlw (APE, AFP, dpa)