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04 Jul 18
Aoife Ní MhurchúAoife Ní MhurchúIrishNurseMediterranean Area

SAR: ‘I’ve heard many of these stories at this stage, but it never gets any easier

This article first appeared on Monday June 25th 2018 in The Irish Examiner by Caroline O'Doherty 

The internal squabbles of the EU seem petty in comparison with the calamities in the countries fled by many of the migrants who try to get to Europe. Aoife Ní Mhurchú, a nurse from Cork, was working with Medécins Sans Frontieres, on the Aquarius search and rescue when it fell victim to the latest rows earlier this month.

She tells Caroline O’Doherty of the ordeal suffered by the 629 people on board and pleads for Europe to remember its humanitarian obligations.

“The events after our last rescue on the Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated in partnership by SOS Méditeraníe and Médecins Sans Frontières, have shown the urgent need for Europe to rethink its approach to migration, to act humanely and treat people with dignity,” says Aoife.

“Saturday night, June 9, was a nightmare scenario for all of the crew on the Aquarius. We did the rescue in the dark of night. One of the boats we encountered was in very poor condition as we arrived on the scene. As we approached, the back of the boat broke and 40 to 50 people fell into the water.

“It is time to put people above politics.”

“As the rescuers were pulling people out of the water, we prepared the ship for a mass casualty incident. Everyone was extremely tense. The team pulled more than 40 people from the water and started to bring them back to the Aquarius. We immediately began resuscitation efforts on many of the people who nearly drowned.

“Although still breathing, many were unconscious when they arrived on board. We were extremely busy resuscitating and bringing them back from the brink.”

“After taking on people rescued by other ships, we had 630 survivors on board. I went and spoke to the rescued people to hear what they’d been through. Although I’ve heard many of these stories at this stage, it never gets any easier to hear about their suffering.

“We identified many survivors of torture — people who were held in captivity, treated violently, and extorted on the promise of release. We identified several sexual violence survivors, both male and female, who experienced rape and sexual torture in Libya, again as a method of extortion.

“I spoke with two young men from Sierra Leone who had worked with Médecins Sans Frontières during the ebola epidemic.

“One of them was on the burial team and was responsible for collecting the bodies from a hospital in Freetown and, taking them to the cemetery from the homes where people had died. The other man worked as a community team member, swabbing people to test for ebola.

“Because they worked so closely with victims of ebola, these men had been completely stigmatised, distanced from their family and friends and kicked out of their communities. They found it very difficult to be accepted again and felt they had no choice but to leave.

“For them, they were thinking about how hard it would be for them to be married, to be accepted as themselves, and they decided to leave for Libya.

“They left their homes in Sierra Leone in 2016 and then spent the last two years in captivity, being tortured in a detention centre in Libya. There were burn marks, scars, and other signs of torture all over them.

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“One of the men, who said entering Libya was the biggest mistake of his life, said he witnessed more than 60 people being shot right in front of him. He said the situation was so bad that he prayed for his death.

“Immediately after the rescue I was so busy with medical activities that, at first, I had no time to think about the political situation brought about by the Italian government’s decision to close the ports. The stand-off between Italy and Malta had a huge effect on the atmosphere on the ship.

“It’s a challenge to be adrift in the middle of the sea for such a long period without having any information to give to the people on board. People were very anxious. Many of them had already attempted to cross the sea several times, only to be intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and brought back to the horror of Libya and arbitrary detention.

“Some people say that search and rescue act as a pull factor, encouraging people to cross the sea. This wasn’t true for the people on board the ship, many of whom hadn’t heard of Médecins Sans Frontières and didn’t know we were there to save them. Many grew scared and agitated, as they feared they were going to be brought back to Libya. One man said he was going to jump overboard, that he’d rather die than go back to Libya.

“People may leave their home countries for many different reasons, but once they get to Libya they all share the same reason for risking their lives at sea: The inhumane conditions in detention centres, and the unofficial place of captivity in places like in Bani Walid, where people are abused, raped and tortured, treated as a means to extort money and not treated as human beings.

There are armed criminal groups throughout Libya, particularly around the borders. Once people are inside the country they feel there’s only one way out, buying your way onto a precarious rubber boat and setting off across the most deadly sea crossing in the world.

“For many, there is no question that it is worth the risk of drowning at sea, saying death is a better option than being trapped in the cycle of abuse in Libya.

“Once we learnt that Spain had offered to take in the rescued people, to treat them as human beings, people were relieved but conditions were still difficult. We had so many people on board that people were literally climbing over each other to get to water and the toilets. It took a whole three hours to give everyone some food.

“Whilst politicians postured in the media, we were living the reality. We know that these are people, we see them as people and we treat them as people.

“Many were experiencing extreme trauma after spending 20 hours at sea on a rubber dinghy and after seeing friends and family disappear beneath the waves. It was obvious that the politicians didn’t see them as people at all.

“Italy’s decision to refuse access to its ports, in contravention of international maritime law, is typical of the approach of European governments to migration.

“European policies of deterrence and containment in Libya are not working, people continue to cross the Mediterranean and many people are trapped in horrific conditions in Libya.

“European governments know what is going on but turn a blind eye to the suffering that their policies are causing. The UNHCR said this week that 68.5m people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Europe can’t turn a blind eye forever.”