© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures
After the operation at night last Monday, we have now been waiting for more than a week for our next rescue. At first, last Tuesday, strong winds started to blow. As boats can't leave the Libyan coast with those metre-high waves, we went to anchor for two days in Malta.
On Saturday, when the sea was quiet again off Libya, the Prudence was back.
Since then, we have been looking for boats unsuccessfully for five days. Other ships have done a couple of rescue operations in the past days - and some people have sadly died - but there are significantly fewer refugee boats than in the weeks before.
In the EU, everything seems to be about protecting borders now rather than protecting people.
The big question is: what is happening inside Libya, behind the blurred coast line, which we can hardly identify in our binoculars on good days?
Is the low number of refugee boats arriving an indication for a shift of power in the struggle between different militia and smugglers? Or is it only the pause that occurs again and again, before multiple boats leave at the same time? We do not know.
The second bit of uncertainty is the following: what has changed for us because MSF decided not to sign the Italian government's Code of Conduct – (with the full approval of the team on board Prudence)? Will the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome only call us to help if there is no other boat in the immediate vicinity? We do not know that either.
Photo: Stefan Dold / MSF
What we know for sure is that the situation of refugees and migrants in Libya continues to be catastrophic. At the last rescue one week ago, I saw the traces of ill-treatment on the back of a 22-year-old Nigerian by myself. George (name changed) told me that he had been kidnapped in the southern Libyan town of Sabha and had been imprisoned in a completely overcrowded camp. The guards forced him to call his family and demanded 700 euros for his release. Meanwhile, they beat him and the other inmates with sticks and bats, even used electric shocks. It was particularly bad on Mondays when they made their rounds, checking whose family had not yet paid. A man who had always slept right in front of George did not wake up one morning. He was dead. George himself did not have a father, and his family could not raise money for his release. For seven months he sat in this torture jail, and was then only released because he was so sick that they let him go.
The terrible conditions in Libyan detention camps, as well as reports of targeted extortion and arbitrary mistreatment of migrants in Libya are well documented by now: the UN mission in Libya and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report entitled "Detained and dehumanised" in December, which has systematically analysed numerous reports like George's. UNICEF has described in the report "A Deadly Journey for Children" that tens of thousands of children are mistreated and abused. The IOM, in a press release in April, denounced modern "slave markets" in Libya. And I know, of course, the reports of the MSF teams about the horrible conditions even in the official camps in Tripoli.
Against this background, for me it is a scandal that the EU supports the Libyan coastguard more and more, a coastguard which blocks the refugees at sea and brings them back into these very detention centres. Italy's parliament has even decided to send naval ships to Libya today - after the other EU states, including the German Government, have left Italy alone to accommodate and deal with the asylum applications of those who escaped. The Italian warships will help the Libyan coast guard to return refugees to Libya. In the EU, everything seems to be about protecting borders now rather than protecting people.