Fieldset
Saving lives in the Mediterranean: “Many hoped it would get better, but now they have no choice but the sea.”

As the situation in Libya becomes increasingly unstable, thousands of the people working there have found themselves kidnapped, detained, and abused. Some are later packed onto dangerously unseaworthy boats on the Mediterranean Sea. Cultural mediator Shafiqul blogs about his role on an MSF search and rescue vessel, and shares the stories of some of the people he has met there…

 
I left Bangladesh in January 2006 to study in London, and came to Italy in 2013, where I volunteered with a small NGO which works with immigrants. That was the first time I came to know about refugees arriving in Italy via the sea, the many reasons why people come and their stories. 
 

Shafiq with guests on board an MSF search and rescue vessel

Shafiqul meets one of the children who have been rescued. Photo: Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures

I became increasingly interested in what is happening in the Mediterranean, and so I applied to join MSF as a cultural mediator, communicating with the Bangladeshis we rescue.
 
Before I came on board I watched a lot of videos on YouTube about MSF and search and rescue - I thought I knew what to expect. But since I joined, every single day has been different and things are so much worse than I could have ever imagined.
 
I’ve heard some really terrible stories on this ship. What is scary is that these terrible stories are so common on board that what the Bangladeshis are telling me has become normal to me. 
During the last rescue there were 181 Bangladeshis rescued and the stories of torture I heard reduced me to tears. One young man told me he was kept in a dark room for three months. The guards would put boiling water in his ear and sometimes pepper spray in his eyes. He and his fellow detainees were beaten with metal sticks. He watched as people would sometimes end up with fractures and broken bones; instead of treating them the guards would prod the wounds. Men and women were raped. It was truly hell. 
 
Through all of it their captors would video what was happening on their phones. This footage was the most effective way to get money from people’s families back home. 
 
The men who escaped and made it to the boats told me that many of their friends had died, they actually felt like they were the lucky ones because they had survived. Apparently it became common to write your name on the wall of the centre with blood. For the many who died, these scribblings are the only proof that they were ever there.
 

Apparently it became common to write your name on the wall of the centre with blood. For the many who died, these scribblings are the only proof that they were ever there.

 

Some of them were kidnapped five or six times and their families had simply ran out of money to free them, selling their homes and everything they had in Bangladesh to secure their freedom. There was no option left other than the sea. 
 
So why do they even come to Libya? 
 
A better life. In Bangladesh they are told by people smugglers ‘you don’t have to pay me now but you can just go to Libya and work to pay me back’. Sometimes they are given a job contract, and sometimes it's a tourist or a fake visa. The amount they are told they owe is really small so people feel encouraged to make the trip. 
 

Most of them didn’t even think about coming to Europe when they left Bangladesh  

 

Normally they are poor people and have come to Libya to work and send money home. When I meet people who arrived in the last six years I ask them; “there is war happening – why did you come?” but they say they were told by their smugglers that the war is over and there is lots of construction work to do, “don’t worry”. Most of them didn’t even think about coming to Europe when they left Bangladesh.  
 
The average length of time they had spent in Libya before climbing into a boat was around five years, some had been there as long as a decade. If I asked how Libya was when they first arrived, most would say it was OK. It’s over the last few years that things really deteriorated for them. Over and over, people told me they were made to work for months without receiving their salary before being sold to someone else. They themselves became a commodity, slaves. 
 
A lot hoped it would get better so they tried to wait it out. But now, there is no way to go. They had no choice but the sea. 
 
Bangladeshis are used to the river and most of us know how to swim. But almost all of us have never seen the sea. When I asked how they felt seeing the sea for the first time, one young man told me, “I was just praying, please god just give me a quick death so that I don’t have to suffer too much”.