Major NGOs halt refugee rescue operations off Libyan coast
German aid group Sea-Eye has announced it will suspend migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The announcement comes a day after Doctors Without Borders (MSF) took a similar decision citing security concerns.
Germany-based Sea-Eye said it was with "a heavy heart" that it had decided to halt its rescue operations in Libyan waters after the country barred foreign vessels from entering a stretch of water off its coast. The organization referred to the Libyan government's actions as an "explicit threat against the private NGOs."
"Under these circumstances, a continuation of our rescue work is not currently possible. It would be irresponsible towards our crews," Sea-Eye founder Michael Buschheuer said. Sea-Eye says it has helped save some 12,000 lives since April 2016.
"We leave behind a deadly gap in the Mediterranean," Buschheuer warned.
Later on Sunday, humanitarian group Save the Children also announced that it was suspening operations as they felt increasingly threatened by Libya's coastguard.
A naval force spokesman of Libya's UN-backed, but internally-rivalled government, on Sunday asserted Tripoli's prerogative in creating its own search zone.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said the Italian-backed initiative "sends a signal that the balance is being restored in the Mediterranean."
Doctors Without Borders (MSF in French) had on Saturday said it was suspending the use of its largest boat in the area because of an "increasingly hostile environment for life-saving rescue operations."
"The recent developments represent another worrying element of an increasingly hostile environment for life-saving rescue operations," said Brice de le Vingne, MSF's Director of Operations on Saturday.
Other NGOs may follow suit in calling off their operations in Libyan waters following the Libyan announcement.
Libya is regarded as the main gateway for refugees heading to Europe since the closure of the so-called Balkans route in early 2016. Hundreds of thousands have made the dangerous journey across Africa and the Mediterranean headed towards Italy, fleeing war, persecution and poverty.
Present within Libya are between 700,000 and 1 million migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN-affiliated agency. They mainly come from Egypt, Niger, Sudan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Syria, and Mali, reports the IOM.
Earlier this week, Libya announced it was establishing a "search and rescue" zone off its coast, ordering vessels belonging to non-governmental organizations to stay out. Libyan authorities accuse charities of inadvertently aiding human trafficking with their rescue at sea missions, hampering efforts to crack down on the illegal migration route.
On Sunday, naval forces spokesman Ayoub Qasim insisted: "This is within the work of the Libyan navy."
"All countries have their own search zones," he said. "We have notified the United Nations."
The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre reacted by warning NGOs that their employees working in the international waters off Libya were at risk. Italy, which has had to bear the brunt of Europe's migrant crisis this year, has also introduced a new code of conduct, to which NGOs engaged in such rescue operations have to adhere.
Italy last month approved its own naval mission in Libyan waters, with designs to deploy a large vessel and several smaller ships to stop migrant boats from reaching the mainland. The refugees it manages to intercept will be taken back to Libya.
However, human rights organizations allege that migrants sent back to Libya often face torture, slave labor and sexual violence.
"European states and Libyan authorities are jointly implementing a blockade on the ability of people to seek safety. This is an unacceptable assault on people's lives and dignity," Brice de le Vingne added.
The goal: Survival
A journey combined with misery as well as dangers for the body and the soul: In their escape from war and suffering, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from Syria, traveled to Greece from Turkey in 2015 and 2016. There are still around 10,000 people stranded on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos. More than 6,000 new arrivals were recorded this year from January to May.
On foot to Europe
In 2015 and 2016, more than a million people tried to reach Western Europe from Greece or Turkey over the Balkan route - through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. The stream of refugees stopped only when the route was officially closed and many countries sealed their borders. Today, most refugees opt for the dangerous Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe.
This picture shook the world. The body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi from Syria washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015. The photograph was widely circulated in social networks and became a symbol of the refugee crisis. Europe could not look away anymore.
Chaos and despair
Last-minute rush: Thousands of refugees tried to get into overcrowded buses and trains in Croatia after it became known that the route through Europe would not remain open for long. In October 2015, Hungary closed its borders and installed container camps, where refugees would be kept for the duration of their asylum process.
A Hungarian journalist caused uproar in September 2015 after she tripped a Syrian man who was trying to run from the police at Roszke, near the Hungarian border with Serbia. At the peak of the crisis, the tone against refugees became coarser. In Germany, attacks on refugee homes increased.
No open borders
The official closure of the Balkan route in March 2016 led to tumultuous scenes at border crossings. Thousands of refugees were stranded and there were reports of brutal violence. Many tried to circumvent border crossings, like these refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border shortly after borders were closed.
Symbol of horror
A child covered in blood and dust: the photograph of five-year-old Omran shocked the public when it was released in 2016. It became an allegory of the horror of the Syrian civil war and the suffering of the Syrian people. One year later, new pictures of the boy circulated on the internet, showing him much happier. Assad supporters say the picture last year was planted for propaganda purposes.
The unknown new home
A Syrian man carries his daughter in the rain at the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni. He hopes for security for his family in Europe. According to the Dublin regulation, asylum can be applied only in the country where the refugee first entered Europe. Many who travel further on are sent back. Above all, Greece and Italy carry the largest burden.
Hope for support
Germany remains the top destination, although the refugee and asylum policy in Germany has become more restrictive following the massive influx. No country in Europe has taken in as many refugees as Germany, which took in 1.2 million since the influx began in 2015. Chancellor Angela Merkel was an icon for many of the newcomers.
Emergency situation in the camps
In France's north, authorities clean up the infamous "jungle" in Calais. The camp caught fire during the evacuation in October 2016. Around 6,500 residents were distributed among other shelters in France. Half a year later, aid organizations reported many minor refugees living as homeless people around Calais.
Drowning in the Mediterranean
NGO and government rescue ships are constantly on the lookout for migrant boats in distress. Despite extreme danger during their voyage, many refugees, fleeing poverty or conflict in the home countries, expect to find a better future in Europe. The overcrowded boats and rubber dinghies often capsize. In 2017 alone, 1,800 people died in the crossing. In 2016, 5,000 people lost their lives.
No justice in Libya
Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East wait in Libyan detention camps to cross the Mediterranean. Human smugglers and traffickers control the business. The conditions in the camps are reportedly catastrophic, human rights organizations say. Eyewitnesses report of slavery and forced prostitution. Still, the inmates never give up the dream of coming to Europe.