UPDATE: Save the Children becomes third NGO to suspend operations.
AQUARIUS, Mediterranean Sea – Two NGOs have been forced to suspend rescue operations in the Mediterranean due to the increasingly threatening behaviour of the Libyan coastguard.
The Libyan coast guard has declared a ban on foreign vessels entering its waters, threatening one ship with gunfire last week.
It is now reported is has extended its search and rescue zone from 12 nautical miles to 70 nautical miles from the Libyan shoreline, well into what many consider to be international waters.
As a result, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRRC) has warned all NGOs that operations face grave security risks.
Annemarie Loof, MSF Operational Manager, told HuffPost UK in a statement: “If these declarations are confirmed and the orders are implemented we see two grave consequences – there will be more deaths at sea and more people trapped in Libya.
“If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean there will be fewer ships in the area to rescue people from drowning.
“Those who do not drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya which we know is a place of lawlessness, arbitrary detention and extreme violence.”
Italy fears the groups are facilitating people smuggling and encouraging migrants to make the passage, and proposed a new code of conduct to formalise operations.
Some groups, including MSF, have refused to sign the code due to a number of sticking points including the presence of armed police on board which NGOs fear would affect thier neutrality.
Most African migrants suffer abuse, torture and rape as they cross the country in pursuit of a new life in Europe, the an Oxfam report said on Wednesday as it urged Europe to offer safer routes.
The voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy – often on flimsy boats run by people smugglers – is the main route to Europe for migrants from Africa, with more than 95,000 people having set sail this year, and 180,000 in 2016.
Before they even embark on the perilous sea leg of their voyage, many migrants end up detained in Libya, and face abuse, extortion, and forced labor at the hands of armed groups, criminal gangs and smugglers, aid agencies say.
Migrants who made it to Italy told Oxfam how they were kept in cells full of dead bodies, forced to call their families to demand ransom money, and beaten and starved for months on end, reports Reuters.
Three-quarters of the 160-odd arrivals interviewed by the charity saw a fellow migrant tortured or killed, while at least eight in 10 said they suffered ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.
“These are people who are escaping war, persecution and poverty – and yet in Libya they encounter another hell,” Roberto Barbieri, head of Oxfam Italy, said in a statement.
Several African migrants who were once detained in Libya have told the Thomson Reuters Foundation of the ‘hell’ they endured – beaten, raped and watching others die.
All but one of the 31 women migrants who spoke to Oxfam said they had faced sexual violence in Libya. Esther, a 28-year-old from Nigeria, told the charity she had suffered a miscarriage after regular beatings during her five months in detention.
“I lost my poor little child who was in my womb due to the beatings… and my sister died from the beatings and abuse. I lost a lot of blood without receiving any help,” she told Oxfam.
Many women migrants take birth control such as contraceptive injections before leaving home as they fear rape and falling pregnant along the journey, activists say.
Oxfam urged European nations to stop pursuing migration policies that prevent people leaving Libya by sea, which the charity said puts migrants at risk of abuse and exploitation.“People must come first,” said Barbieri of Oxfam. “The EU should provide safe routes for people to come to Europe and have access to a fair and transparent processes for claiming asylum.”
The crackdown on NGO ship has been mirrored by an increasing hardline on NGO boats by the Italian government with the two sides recently battling each other over a new code of conduct for rescue operations in international waters.
Over 90,000 migrants have been brought to Italy this year on top of the half a million brought over the three previous years.
Around 2,230 people, most of them fleeing poverty, violence and forced military conscription, died in the first seven months of 2017 trying to make the sea crossing.
The actual number of dead is likely to be far higher as many boats leaving the Libyan shore simply disappear and are not seen again.
Ships operated by aid charities have noted a marked reduction in the number of rescues required in recent weeks which coincides with the newly-launched Italian naval mission.
But aid groups suggest the apparent stemming of one problem is exacerbating another far bigger issue.
Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator currently aboard the Aquarius, told HuffPost UK: “This may sound like a solution of the problem [of people-trafficking] but actually it’s more a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
“What this actually means is people are being returned to Libya which is not a safe place.”