Conflict & Justice

Dangers of escaping Libya by boat

Anchor Marco Werman talks to Jemini Pandya, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, about the growing number of reports of tragedies involving boatloads of migrants fleeing the conflict in Libya.

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Marco Werman: The island of Lebaduza has been the destination of thousands of migrants from Libya.  The International Organization for Migration estimates that ten thousand of them have reached Lebaduza or the neighboring island of Lenosa. But, many other migrants have died en route. A ship reportedly up to six hundred migrants reportedly sank off the Libyan coast late last week. Many of those on board were killed. Jemini Pandya is the spokeswoman for the Geneva based International Organization for Migration. She says precise figures are hard to come by.

Jemini Pandya: We will never really know how many boats have left. We will never really know how many migrants were actually on those boats. We will never really know for sure how many people have actually died at sea trying to get to Italy and Tramolta. The only thing that we do know is the number of migrants who have arrived safely on Italian and Maltese shores since the start of the crisis and that’s it. But it doesn’t in any way reflect the scale of the danger and the tragedy that’s unfolding on the Mediterranean sea.

Werman: Explain the problems that won’t allow you to have a more definitive number of boats leaving and people leaving and people dying.

Pandya:  Well, as you know, it’s a very difficult situation at the moment in Libya with the conflict raging which makes it very difficult for all of us working on the humanitarian grounds to actually operate in the way that we would normally do before the crisis. Although IOM has successfully carried out six missions to rescue stranded migrants and wounded Libyan civilians from the port city of Mizrata to Benghazi.  It’s an extremely dangerous operation and we don’t yet know when we’ll be able to do another one. In terms of what’s happening in Tripoli it’s much harder to gauge. By and large what migrants have been doing is using smugglers to get them out of Libya by sea and what happens is that smugglers will use very unseaworthy boats. They will overcrowd the boats in order to get as many people on those boats and out as possible and also to get as much money as possible. They leave at times that’s only known to them. That’s why I say that it’s impossible to know how many boats are actually leaving and how many migrants are actually on those boats because it’s not as though you’re buying a ticket as such or you’re being registered before you get on the boats.

Werman: Right, I mean there is no passenger manifest with these authorizations. One thing, and you kind of alluded to it there, one thing that’s perhaps not surprising but still pretty shocking are what these refugees are having to pay boat owners and smugglers. Tell us about the kind of things from money to possessions that these refugees have to give up in order to escape the violence in Libya.

Pandya: Well, by and large they’re actually not refugees, they’re migrants but also some asylum seekers such as the Somalis and Eritreans. But what’s quite worrying about what’s actually happening in Libya at the moment is what the migrants have been saying to us now for several weeks is that they are not formally being asked to pay a fee to get on these boats. Or, if they are it’s a very nominal one. What is actually happening is that they are being searched and robbed basically of all their money and their possessions. They’re actually…

Werman: By who?

Pandya: By Libyan officials. And soldiers. And one of my colleagues on the island of Lapaduza was saying is that normally when you have migrants arriving on the island of Lapaduza they arrive with some element of belongings, you know, something that belongs to them.  These migrants arriving from Libya are coming with nothing. They are coming with the clothes on their backs, possibly a little bit of food and water but really, not very much. The other worrying thing that we heard from migrants who were witnesses to the boat that sank off the Libyan coast last Thursday to Friday was that when they saw people in the sea trying to swim to shore they saw people not making it, they saw bodies being washed onto shore, they changed their minds. Many of them decided that they didn’t want to get on a boat and head for Italy. And what happened is that the soldiers and officials started firing into the air and basically forced them onto the boats. And that is the first time we’ve ever heard something like this.

Werman: Mm-hmm. Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman with the International Organization for Migration speaking with us from Geneva. Thank you.

Pandya: You’re welcome.

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