Rescued at Sea: Caring for Refugees and Migrants in Libya

By Abdelkarim Saleh, Distribution Officer, International Medical Corps Libya

We are always on alert for a call from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. They notify us when a boat with refugees has been rescued and our task is to deploy immediately to assist survivors.

I’m a member of International Medical Corps’ sea rescue team, based in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. We work with UNHCR and the Libyan Coast Guard to provide medical care and other relief to refugees and migrants who have been rescued trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. The journey is both longer and far more perilous than the Eastern Mediterranean crossing between Turkey and Greece that so many chose before authorities last year began blocking refugee flows from Greece to countries further north in Europe. During the first five and one-half months of 2017, more than 1,700 refugees have died attempting the Libya-Italy crossing.

The rhythm of sea rescues varies significantly. Sometimes we only respond to one in a month, but there are other periods when we can be involved in 10 sea rescues in a signal month. It all depends on the weather and sea conditions — which is why the summer months are the busiest.

The port becomes chaotic and crowded when a boat carrying migrants is rescued by the coast guard. There are men, women, and children of all ages and nationalities. Some are crying. Others are stoic. All look exhausted — the ordeal of the long, dangerous and desperate attempt to reach Europe etched into their faces.

For us, it is emotionally taxing work. There are times we feel happy to help deliver them from danger, but there are other occasions when we can feel the total despair for those who lost loved ones on the attempted crossing. No matter what I confront, I always feel I have to give as much as I can for as long as I can to help these survivors who have risked so much.

Our role at International Medical Corps is to provide health care and distribute clothes and other basic relief supplies to those who have been rescued. We provide hygiene materials, blankets, and refreshments, while our medical team administer check-ups as soon as refugees come ashore, then treat people as needed. We transport any of those serious injured to the nearest hospital for higher-level care. Many need psychological support to help them process what they have gone through — both in their homeland that led them to flee and what they experienced during the oft-harrowing journeys that brought them here.

One rescue stands out especially in my mind. We received a call telling us the coast guard had found a boat at sea loaded with roughly 170 migrants. The coast guard planned to take the survivors to Zawiya City, about 30 miles from Tripoli. When we arrived, we only found seven people. The rest had drowned and the coast guard was not able to retrieve their bodies. Many of the dead were children and elderly people, who were simply not strong enough to swim or stay alive in the water.

The sadness of that day was overwhelming. It is a feeling I will never forget.

I remember a man from Nigeria. His name was Rich. I met him after he was rescued and being taken to the Tripoli Naval Base. He was crying and screaming. His wife and two children had drowned. He was filled with regret and remorse for having taken his family on the journey. There was nothing we could do but offer our compassion and support.

I often wonder where Rich is now. Could he be back in Nigeria?

Already this year, so many have died or gone missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean in a desperate bid to secure a better life for themselves and their families. Tragically, more will perish in the months ahead as the warmer weather and calmer waters of the summer months draw more refugees and migrants to attempt the crossing.

It is unconscionable that there are people who feel that such a perilous sea crossing is their best chance at survival and a decent quality of life.

While I can’t change the conflicts, wars, and poverty that drives them to the Libya coastline and onward to Europe, I am proud of the work that we do. I feel that I am making a difference, at the very least by showing survivors that someone cares.

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