Log entry #71

There is this assumption that people leaving ‘safe’ countries are automatically economic migrants and do not have the right to asylum

Noor is from the Netherlands and works as MSF’s Humanitarian Affairs Officer on board. Her work includes the taking of testimonies of the people that we rescue and “flagging vulnerable people to the Italian authorities and humanitarian organisations on land in Italy. These can include victims of torture, survivors of sexual violence, and victims of trafficking.”

The testimonies she collects are primarily used for advocacy, “advocacy towards European governments, towards the Governments of countries of origin, towards Libyan authorities, and towards other humanitarian organisations, to induce change and to improve the humanitarian assistance and protection of people at all stages of their flight. This includes in their countries of origin, en route, in Libya and once they arrive in Italy.”

“When people first arrive, we usually give them a few hours to adjust, or even a day to just breathe and realize that they are safe. Some people approach you actively and want to share their whole story, to get it off their chest. Some people will take some time to warm up and others rather not talk about it, yet, or at all.” During her interviews Noor tries to find out, “why people are leaving, what they know about the route before they leave, what happens to them on the route and primarily what happens to them in Libya. We also try to understand what the situations in the detention centres and informal places of captivity are. We try to get an idea of what these people go through so that we can advocate best on their behalf.”

She says that: “people report similar patterns of abuse along the route. In Libya there is a cycle of abuse that almost everybody talks about, where people are basically either in a detention centre, a prison, a holding house or in informal captivity somewhere else. They may also be locked in their own house out of fear of being in one of those places.” The situation in Libya is so unsafe, that: “People talk about not being able to take a taxi, not being able to go to a supermarket, not being able to walk on the street, just being in constant fear of being arrested and captured by anybody with a gun. People commonly talk about that guns are everywhere, that every Libyan owns a gun.” Of Libya and the detention centres: “They tell us that they get taken to places, where they get tortured, they receive very little food and water, it’s overcrowded, there is poor sanitation, and people might get bought and sold out of these places and then brought to a different place within the prolonged cycle of abuse. It is a cycle where people are kicked around between these different places. Bought and sold, bought and sold. A lot of them also have to pay ransoms, which may be done through calling their families. They tell us that they are tortured on their phones or even on Skype sometimes, to get money from their families.” This seems to be particularly common amongst Bangladeshis: “they tell us that their families had to sell all their property, take extra loans, in order to be able to pay for these ransoms.” So it is not only the people in Libya themselves that are impacted by this violence, but “it’s impacting their families in the countries of origin as well.”

The journey from Libya usually continues when, “people get on the boat, sometimes even against their will. Sometimes people are forced on there by smugglers, traffickers, or private individuals.” Some are rescued, some may be forever lost and some might be intercepted by Libyan Coast Guard or other unidentified vessels, Noor has been told that in those cases, “they get taken back to Libya and claim to be brought straight back to detention centres.” When I ask her if she has any idea why people would be put on boats against their will, she says it would be mere speculation. “We know that many women are being trafficked and send to Italy, straight into European prostitution circles. For others, all we know is that the sea may be the only way out. People tell us that by road or by air is impossible. Of course we only see a limited group of people that are biased in their experience, as we meet them all at sea. Nevertheless, many claim to have tried other exit strategies, and that the only viable option was the sea.”

Having been on board for two months, Noor has conducted quite a number of interviews and met hundreds of people, so I ask her what she has found most rewarding but also most difficult about her time on the Aquarius.

She says what is most rewarding is definitely “seeing the people change throughout these 48 or 72 hours we have with them. Opening up a little bit and slowly realizing that this is the end of their journey, at least that’s how it feels for them. That’s a really beautiful moment that we get to be a part of.” However, at the same time, that is also the difficult part for her, “because they dance, they sing and they think this is it and all I can think of is that they are now starting the European asylum seeking process, which is long and can be psychologically very straining. It’s hard to see this and realize that another huge chunk of the journey is only starting now. And for the trafficked women, it is far from being over.”

Another aspect that strikes her is “the dichotomy that policy makers and the public keep making between refugees and economic migrants. There is this assumption that people leaving ‘safe’ countries are automatically economic migrants and do not have the right to asylum. The problem is that many people from ‘safe’ countries do flee from violence or persecution. But mostly, the problem is that economic migrants may fall victim to trafficking, torture, and sexual violence along the route or in Libya, which gives them the right to some form of international protection. Thus, it must be recognized that these legal categories are blurred and that each person deserves a process in which individual vulnerabilities are carefully assessed to ensure they receive the needed care and protection on land. A 16-year-old Moroccan boy does not automatically translate into the simple legal category of ‘economic migrant’. Why? Because this might be his story:

“They threatened to rape my mother and sister if I would not have let them rape me. When I was finally released, after five months of continuous torture and rape, I could not go back to my normal life. I only told my family that I had been kidnapped. I did not tell them what they did to me. I left to Europe to start working and hopefully bring my mother and sister there where they can be safe. I fear for them.” – M, 16, Morocco, 05/05/2017

Finally, Noor shares with me one of the stories that struck her a lot, which is a narrative not uncommon amongst the many women that Noor has interviewed on the Aquarius. She says that a number of them, “are aware of what’s about to come, before they undertake the journey. Not entirely of course, but they’ve heard about it. And so they take injectable contraceptives before leaving, expecting to be raped. To me that kind of shows that it is not necessarily a problem of information and awareness, but this is real desperation to get out of somewhere. That people are aware of what might happen and are still willing to take the risk. Just for the hope of a somewhat better life.”


Text: Lea Main-Klingst