By René Schulthoff
Since February 2016 SOS MEDITERRANEE has been operating in the Mediterranean Sea and has conducted 37 rescue operations. The AQUARIUS crew has saved more than 5.000 children, women and men in these past eight months. As we transfer refugees from other search and rescue teams from time to time to take them ashore, we have now tended to more than 8.000 individuals aboard the AQUARIUS.
Since launching our rescue operations in February we have been able to observe a steady incline in the number of minors, attempting the dangerous crossing to Europe. We were able to save almost 1.200 underage men and women – some of them still children – in the past eight months. The majority of them, more than 80%, are traveling without any relatives. They are alone on their journey, mostly accompanied by other minors from their home countries.
Just recently, we rescued 252 people, 23 km north of Tripoli. Over 100 of the rescued were under 18 years, over a third were unaccompanied. In practice this means that at sea, we encounter more and more young people fleeing from their home countries, or the inhumane and disastrous conditions in Libya.
The motives for these large numbers of young people fleeing and trying to cross the Mediterranean, vary from country to country:
Young men from Nigeria tell us over and over again, that they have left their country to find work in other countries such as Ghana, Burkina Faso or Libya. Some had previously lost their parents, others simply followed their friends to find work and provide for their families. The decision to go to Europe is usually only made whilst fleeing.
Refugees from Eritrea make up the third largest group of people fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe. A young group of Eritreans that we encountered on board named the arbitrary military service as their main reason for fleeing. Upon reaching legal age, men and women are drafted into the military – whose duration is unlimited by the way. First and foremost they want to avoid armed service. According to Amnesty International many conscripts are not only used in the military service, but in addition are also deployed for civil tasks such as agricultural, construction or vocational work.
Many young women and men from Guinea told us that their home country is faced with ethnic tensions. They indicate that their own group is being suppressed and they thus decided to leave. According to their own accounts, they face discrimination in most sectors of society, including employment and thus face difficulties making a living.
Other minors, especially the younger ones between 10 and 14 years, in turn, are quite hopeful. It is their hopes for a better education that has motivated their plight. Most probably their parents let them go together with a group of their peers – in the hope that at least one of their family members would be able to get an education. Maybe to go on to university and one day get a job.
All these minors ultimately end up in Libya, mostly to find well-paying jobs. A dream that quickly turns into a nightmare. Libya has become the main transit country for refugees from the African continent. Whilst many were able to find work under Gaddafi’s rule, the situation has dramatically changed since the outbreak of the civil war. The cruel stories are always the same. Libya is a dead-end that results in death for many refugees.
All those that talk to us about Libya describe the same terrifying reality: they talk about forced labour, inhumane living conditions in camps, maltreatment, torture and rape. Most say that at one point the situation in Libya became unbearable. That this is the reason that boats to Europe suddenly became an option. They say it is better to die at sea, than to stay in Libya.
For nine weeks over the summer, René Schulthoff worked for SOS MEDITERRANEE as communications officer aboard the AQUARIUS. He now works and lives in Beirut. During his time with us he spoke to many refugees on board, amongst them numerous minors.
Photo credits : Marco Panzetti / SOS ME