An impossible choice: Why Save the Children cannot endorse returning refugees to Libya

An impossible choice: Why Save the Children cannot endorse returning refugees to Libya
Comment: Handing shipwrecked migrants over to Libya's coastguard, only for them to be returned to shore, isn't a risk we can take, writes Save the Children's media manager, Gemma Parkin.
5 min read
17 Aug, 2017
'My Syrian colleague says he'd rather have died than be returned to the brutal conflict'[AFP]
It's a strange question to kick off the working day on board Save the Children's rescue ship: Would we rather stop our search and rescue operations completely, and risk people drowning, than return migrants and refugees to Libya? But that's the question we were forced to ask ourselves – and the answer is clear. This is not an action we can stand behind.

My Syrian colleague speaks from experience. He says he'd rather have died than be returned to the brutal conflict he fled, and thinks most refugees would agree. The escape to Europe is a do-or-die journey for most, and therein lies the quandary. As a humanitarian organisation, we've made a principled decision to never return anyone we rescued to Libya.

Amid conflicting reports, the Libyan Coastguard have announced that they will patrol anywhere between 50 and 70 nautical miles from their coast, taking anyone they find floating in stricken vessels back to Libya.

This affects a huge chunk of the Mediterranean, which many argue is international waters and where 2,200 people have drowned already this year. It's also where Save the Children has rescued 8,000 people since we launched our rescue ship last September, in response to a 30 percent increase in migrants dying en route to sanctuary, compared to 2015.

Now, Save the Children, as well as other charities that operate rescue ships in the Mediterranean, is increasingly concerned that we could be forced to hand over anyone we've rescued to the Libyan Coastguard, only for them to be returned to re-live the horrors they've just escaped.

As a humanitarian organisation, we've made a principled decision to never return anyone we rescued to Libya

This is not the plan. It is one of the reasons that has forced several charities like us to face the prospect of suspending operations. 

Libya, by all accounts I've taken personally, is hell on earth. A tightrope of kidnapping, extortion, torture, detention, rape and slave labour. Libya is simply not a safe place to return anyone to, which is why Italy has borne the brunt of the Mediterranean migration crisis so far, with Europe's southernmost point -the Italian island of Lampedusa - generally the closest safe port from any Mediterranean Sea catastrophe.

"The Libyan Navy has made it clear that NGOs are totally unwelcome off
the coast of Libya" says Gemma Parkin [Save the Children]

This is pertinent because, despite the depiction of chaos by politicians, the high seas are in fact governed by an abundance of very clear international maritime laws.

When we rescue terrified non-swimmers, from sinking rubber boats, Save the Children is acting in line with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea to "proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress".  

When it is suggested we are providing a "ferry service" to Europe, actually Save the Children is abiding by the Refugee Convention with which, post-World War II, states around the world agreed not to "return [refugees]… to territories where life or freedom would be threatened".

Shifts on the Vos Hesta are no cruise, with staff working 20 hour days, packing and distributing hundreds of emergency kits containing what could be the first taste of food and water in days for those rescued. We're a team of doctors, nurses, lawyers and child protection specialists who are dedicated to saving lives, not providing tourist transport.

Read more: MSF halts operations of largest migrant rescue boat as dispute with Libya escalates

The 1951 Refugee Convention was a global response to the Holocaust and the subsequent fallout of millions of desperate, persecuted people being forced from their homes. But people have short memories, so let me give a more recent case which, shockingly, is being ignored in the current debate between the EU and Libya about how to stem migration.

Back in 2009, Berlusconi, then Italian prime minister and Gaddafi, then Libyan leader, made a verbal agreement that migrant boats found in the Mediterranean would be returned to Libya and brought to makeshift camps in Libya, to languish for years without asylum claims being heard.

Nearly a decade on and we've come full circle. Almost 15,000 drowned souls have been lost to the Mediterranean's watery graveyard in the last four years alone, a death toll that's getting growing each month, and it's Groundhog Day.

We know from experience that slamming shut borders and abandoning humanitarian principles does not solve the problem

We know from experience that slamming shut borders and abandoning humanitarian principles does not solve the problem. Humanity's in-built will to survive pushes families to take even more dangerous routes to escape conflict, persecution and extreme poverty. 

The people we rescue will be classified as refugees or migrants on reaching dry land. They'll either claim international protection, be sent home or if they're a lone child, they'll enter the care system.

Most children we pull on board carry a single plastic bag containing their worldly possessions, and are willing to risk their life for a better future.

Our rescue ship offers a stopgap to reduce the gruesome and deadly nature of this sea crossing

Save the Children isn't a pro-migration charity, we don't want to encourage false hope. The success of the EU's strategy thus far, which prioritises border control over saving lives, is questionable. What our rescue ship offers is a stopgap to reduce the gruesome and deadly nature of this sea crossing.

The dilemma of the day is to decide whether to assist in a rescue and prioritise saving lives, even within the newly proposed Libyan-run search and rescue zone, where we're decidedly unwelcome. We're juggling that with the need to keep our team on board safe from potential harm, and to make sure we can get close enough to actually save lives.

The overriding priority of any humanitarian organisation is to do no harm.

How can we save lives, yet condemn them to being sent back to a living hell? That's the principle at stake, one which weighs heavily on the team on board the Vos Hestia, but sadly one which we cannot contemplate.

Gemma Parkin is Head of News at Save the Children, and is on board the Vos Hestia, currently docked in Malta.

Follow her on Twitter: @gemmaparkin1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.