"When you fall into the water, it's over for you."
In 2020, Asma,* a young pregnant woman from Burkina Faso, was taking the perilous Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe to reach what she hoped would be a safe haven for her family. She not only gave birth in dangerous conditions aboard a boat, but her journey also ended in tragedy when her partner was thrown overboard by a wave during a storm.
He drowned at sea, while she and others were forced to stand watching, unable to save him.
Others on her boat also perished, she said. "We ran out of food and water. Many people, including children, were so thirsty, they had to drink from the sea. Two of the children became severely ill, and died."
Asma gave her testimony to UN Human Rights, as part of a new report that delivers first-hand accounts of migrants travelling through Libya to Europe.
The report - Lethal Disregard: Search and rescue and the protection of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea -
recommends urgent reform of search and rescue (SAR) policies and practices in the central Mediterranean Sea, to protect the safety, dignity and human rights of migrants compelled to make the dangerous journey through Libya to Europe.
According to the report, between January 2019 and December 2020, at least 2,239 migrants died attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea, crossing primarily from Libya to either Italy or Malta.
More than 500 people have died already this year.
Unimaginable horrors continue to face migrants making the journey through Libya. They routinely endure dehydration, starvation, arbitrary detention, sexual abuse and ill-treatment. At sea, they risk their lives on overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels, and are often left to drift for days without adequate food, water or medical attention.
Arrival to Europe does not necessarily end the nightmare: if they make it, they often face detention, the threat of deportation, inadequate living conditions and obstacles to receive adequate assistance such as food, housing and medical care.
The report calls on the Libyan authorities, European Union (EU) Member States and institutions, and other relevant actors to take determined and effective action to deploy SAR operations, support the work of humanitarian NGOs, and to adopt a common and human rights-based arrangement for the timely disembarkation of all people rescued at sea.
Dangerous rescue and interception: "They don't care if you live or die"
According to the report, "a pattern of reckless and violent behaviour" by the Libyan Coast Guard persists, including firing at or near migrant vessels, colliding with them, physical violence against migrants and the use of threatening or racist language.
"These people don't have any humanity," said Abdul, a 25 year-old Sudanese man who made four separate attempts to flee Libya by boat before arriving in Europe. "They don't care if you live or die."
While awaiting assistance from European authorities, his boat was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which rammed the vessel, he said, causing it to capsize. All 42 survivors were forcibly returned to Libya, according to his testimony.
"I was beaten by the guards and only received food once each day," Abdul recounts. "Finally after 25 days, we managed to escape. My leg got broken. Several others were shot by the guards, and died."
Abdul finally arrived in Malta, on his fourth attempt. He said he had spent 29 hours at sea before the boat was eventually rescued by a search and rescue non-governmental organization.
Pushbacks at sea: "There is no Europe for you today"
Various allegations of delays in assisting migrant vessels in distress, as well as incidents of migrant vessels being turned away by European authorities were reported. The report also noted a coordination between EU Member States and institutions, and the Libyan Coast Guard, with both parties providing insufficient human rights assurances that migrants will be disembarked in a place of safety. This coordination ultimately works to effectively "pull back" migrants to Libya from international waters.
"There is no Europe for you today." This was the taunt that Moussa, a man from Côte d'Ivoire, said he was met with on arrival to Malta. His boat carrying 80 migrants had been spotted by European helicopters, and then intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard.
Two others on the same boat described five days of distress at sea, including manoeuvres by a Maltese Armed Forces boat to deter them from reaching shore. They said Maltese authorities told them they had three options: return to Libya, continue to Lampedusa, Italy, or go to Malta and be arrested upon arrival.
Arrival to Europe: "from hell to uncertainty"
For too many, disembarking in Europe brings yet another raft of human rights violations. Thousands undergo prolonged or arbitrary detention, and are unable to access immediate assistance such as physical and mental healthcare, adequate housing, food, water and sanitation.
For Daraja, a Nigerian woman whose asylum application was rejected, the desperation and depression among migrants is palpable. A single mother of two young children, she does not know what the future holds. "I feel as if I have gone from hell to uncertainty. I thought my journey would come to an end and I would find a safe place in Europe."
Urging "sufficient safe, accessible and regular migration channels," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on the Libyan Government of National Unity and EU Member States and institutions to urgently reform their search and rescue policies and practices.
"While we share the common goal of ensuring that no one feels compelled to put their families on unseaworthy boats or to risk their own lives in search of safety and dignity, the answer cannot be simply preventing departures from Libya or making the journeys more desperate and dangerous," she said.
*ALL NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT IDENTITIES OF INTERVIEWEES
25 May 2021