Turned into a huge graveyard, the number of migrants drowned in the waters of the Central Mediterranean trying to reach Europe in 2023 is already higher than in 2022

Mediterranean swallows an average of eight lives a day

Guardia Costera Helénica vía REUTERS - Una foto sin fecha proporcionada por la Guardia Costera Helénica muestra a los migrantes a bordo de un bote durante una operación de rescate, antes de que su bote volcara en mar abierto, frente a Grecia, el 14 de junio de 2023
photo_camera Hellenic Coast Guard via REUTERS - An undated photo provided by the Hellenic Coast Guard shows migrants aboard a boat during a rescue operation, before their boat capsized in the open sea off Greece June 14, 2023

The drama does not cease, the desperation does not end and every year thousands of people throw themselves into the sea in search of a new life that - unfortunately on too many occasions - they end up losing in the crossing. 

2023 has become the deadliest year in the central Mediterranean in the last five years, with at least 2,480 migrants dead or missing in what is considered - according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) - the most dangerous migratory route in the world. Let's remember that since the IOM activated the tracking system back in 2014, the year with the most deaths and disappearances was 2016, with 5,136 victims, followed by 2015 with 4,055.

Looking at the numbers it is a truly moving drama, but it is even more so when we stop to think about the people behind the numbers: they are not numbers, they are human lives sadly lost in the immense blue of the sea. 

PHOTO/AFP/TIZIANA FABI - Chalecos salvavidas son almacenados a bordo del barco de rescate Aurora de la ONG alemana Sea-Watch que opera en el mar Mediterráneo para rescatar a los migrantes, en el puerto de la pequeña isla de Lampedusa, al sur de Sicilia, el 25 de septiembre de 2023
PHOTO/AFP/TIZIANA FABI - Life jackets are stored aboard the German NGO Sea-Watch's Aurora rescue ship operating in the Mediterranean Sea to rescue migrants, at the port of the small island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, Sept. 25, 2023

MSF accuses Mediterranean countries of violent border practices and deliberate inaction

Faced with this desperate situation, Médecins Sans Frontières denounces that the inaction and passivity of European states is causing more deaths in the central Mediterranean and aggravating an already desperate situation. The NGO regrets that countries such as Malta and Italy delay rescues, assign distant ports for disembarkation or favour returns to unsafe places, endangering the lives of thousands of people every year.

MSF denounces in its report that the repeated practice of assigning distant ports to rescue ships has forced the Geo Barents to travel an additional 28,000 kilometres, or in other words, some 70 days of extra sailing time). The humanitarian organisations also point the finger directly at Giorgia Meloni's Italian government, which in the first nine months of 2023 judicially blocked up to six rescue ships which - while moored in port - were unable to go out to sea to save lives. 

REUTERS/BORJA SUAREZ - Migrantes esperan para desembarcar de un buque de la Guardia Costera española, en el puerto de Arguineguin, en la isla de Gran Canaria. España, 3 de junio de 2023
REUTERS/BORJA SUAREZ - Migrants wait to disembark from a Spanish Coast Guard vessel at the port of Arguineguin on the island of Gran Canaria. Spain, June 3, 2023

The report collects thousands of testimonies of shipwrecked people

For the NGO, the new normality of EU migration policies in the Mediterranean could have lethal consequences. Jana Ciernioch, humanitarian coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, accuses Mediterranean countries of violent border practices. "So far this year, about eight people have died every day in the central Mediterranean. We are talking about 2,200 men, women and children. And this has to stop now. "And what about those who survived the perilous crossing? On Médecins Sans Frontières rescue boats, survivors tell us about the terrible violence they have suffered," warns the MSF Humanitarian Coordinator. "And what is the European response to that? Agreements with third countries and forced returns to unsafe places. But also by directly avoiding helping people in need". Jana Ciernoich criticises Malta for becoming a "champion country in not rescuing people".

Médecins Sans Frontières admits that some European countries have seen a doubling in the number of migrants trying to cross into Europe, especially on the migration route from Tunisia and Italy. "This significant increase in departures, coupled with a lack of state rescue capacity and resources, has resulted in an increase in the number of boats in distress and shipwrecks," the NGO acknowledges. 

The study is based on data collected by the crew of the Geo Barents rescue vessel managed by MSF. The report "No one came to rescue us" collects nearly 9,500 testimonies of shipwrecked people since they began their rescue operations at sea in 2021: men, women and children who - despite a dangerous crossing and the enormous obstacles they encountered in the destination countries - managed to survive. "In the small boat we were travelling in, there was room for 10-15 people at most. But there were more than 40 of us on board. The waves hit the boat and at least 16 people died, including women and children. I saw it with my own eyes," laments an emotional young Cameroonian (26 years old) who was rescued by Médecins Sans Frontières in April 2023.

AP/JEREMIAS GONZALEZ - Imagen de migrantes
AP/JEREMIAS GONZALEZ - Image of Migrants

"You are 50 kilometres from Italy. We don't need to help you"

On board the Geo Barents, MSF crew members explain that they have witnessed flagrant human rights violations, with Italy and Malta failing to coordinate rescues and ensure assistance to people in danger of drowning. Or they did not save them at all. "We were told: 'You are 50 km from Italy. We don't need to help you. Go on on your own'". According to the testimony of an Eritrean rescued in June 2023, a Maltese boat approached them and offered them water, food and fuel, but did not rescue them. "The women were screaming for help. We asked them for help many times, but they refused all our requests," says the castaway who was finally able to reach port. Today, safe, sound and with a fresh memory, he remembers that some of his companions did not suffer the same fate. 

REUTERS/ALGELOS TZORTZNIS - Migrantes que fueron rescatados en mar abierto frente a Grecia junto con otros migrantes, despues de que su bote volcara, son vistos dentro de un almacén, utilizado como refugio, en el puerto de Kalamata, Grecia, el 15 de junio de 2023
REUTERS/ALGELOS TZORTZNIS - Migrants who were rescued in the open sea off Greece along with other migrants, after their boat capsized, are seen inside a warehouse, used as a shelter, in the port of Kalamata, Greece, June 15, 2023

Burns, scars from gunshot wounds, beatings and unwanted pregnancies

They speak of torture and humiliation of all kinds, without mercy and almost without respite. Health workers on board the Geo Barents tell of the harsh circumstances in which they find migrants, rescue after rescue. "We have encountered patients with severe violence-related trauma, such as scars from gunshot wounds or beatings, unwanted pregnancies caused by sexual violence and worrying levels of psychological distress, such as anxiety and nightmares", is one of the most repeated complaints among the crew, who focus on Libya and Tunisia as the usual ports of departure on the world's most dangerous migratory route.

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