Caring for Refugees and Migrants in Libya
By Abdelkarim Saleh, Distribution Officer, International Medical Corps Libya
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 in despair, others stoic. All look exhausted — the ordeal of a long, dangerous and desperate attempt to reach Europe etched into their faces.
As crucial as the work is, it is also emotionally challenging. At times, delivering people from danger brings joy. However, we can often feel the anguish of those who lost loved ones at sea. No matter what, the rescuers always feel like we have to give as much as we can, for as long as possible, to help people who have risked everything to survive.
One rescue operation, in particular, stands out. International Medical Corps received a call telling us that the coast guard had found a boat at sea, carrying roughly 170 women, men and children. They planned to take them about 30 miles from Tripoli to Zawiya City. When our rescue team arrived, we only found seven people alive. The rest had drowned at sea and the coast guard has not been able to retrieve their bodies. Many of the dead were children and elderly people, simply not strong enough to swim or stay alive in the water.
The sadness of that day was overwhelming, a feeling I will never forget.
I am a member of International Medical Corps’ sea rescue team, based in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. 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.
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 longer and far more perilous than the Eastern Mediterranean crossing between Turkey and Greece, one that many used before authorities began blocking refugee flows over there last year. During the first five and a half months of 2017, more than 1,700 refugees died attempting to cross from Libya to Italy.
Our role at International Medical Corps is to provide health care as well as distribute clothes and other basic relief supplies to survivors. We provide hygiene materials, blankets and refreshments, while our medical team administer check-ups as soon as refugees reach land, then treat them as needed. We transport seriously injured people to the nearest hospital for higher-level care. Many need psychological support to help them process what they have been through – both in their homeland that led them to flee and what they experienced during the harrowing journey that brought them here.
I remember a man from Nigeria, his name was Rich. I met him after he was rescued and taken to the Tripoli Naval Base, he was crying and screaming. His wife and two children had drowned. He was filled with regret and sorrow for having taken his family along. Then and there, we could do nothing but offer our compassion and support.
I often wonder where Rich is now, could he be back in Nigeria?