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Over 100 refugees drowned off Libya in early Sept.: MSF

A nine-month-old baby is detained with his mother (L) and 10-year-old brother in Libya. (File photo by MSF)

More than 100 refugees perished in boat incidents off Libya’s coastline early this month, and the survivors — including pregnant women, babies, and severely-burned people — were taken into detention in Libya, aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says.

The group quoted survivors in a Monday statement as saying that two vessels had begun sailing from a Libyan coast on September 1, each carrying scores of mostly African asylum seekers, when one boat’s engine failed and the other started to deflate during the sea journey.

A total of 100 people died in the wrecks, according to the MSF. Among the fatalities were over 20 children, including two 17-month-old twins and their mother and father.

According to the statement, published on its website, survivors further told MSF aid workers that although “European rescuers” — who were informed about the trouble by the people on board the vessels — had arrived by aircraft and thrown life rafts, the refugees remained in the water for hours.

An MSF team provides medical care to survivors, who are now held in arbitrary detention in Libya. (Photo by MSF)

“On our boat, only 55 people survived. Many people died, including families and children. They could have been saved if rescuers had come earlier,” said one unidentified survivor, as quoted in the MSF statement.

Among the asylum seekers on board the wrecked boats were nationals from African countries such as Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt.

An MSF team treated a number of the survivors for chemical burns caused by contact with spilled engine fuel after many of them were taken to the Libyan port of Khoms by the Libyan coastguard on September 2, facing further ordeals in the war-torn country.

More trouble for the survivors

“Our medical team worked solidly for several hours to assist survivors with the most serious conditions,” said Jai Defranciscis, an MSF nurse in Misrata, northwestern Libya. “We managed to treat 18 urgent cases — among them were nine people suffering from extensive chemical burns.”

The aid group further said that following the sea ordeal, the survivors were transferred to a detention center under the control of the Libyan authorities where MSF workers provided medical care to them while in detention.

MSF also explained that it is common for refugees surviving sea accidents to be sent back into a harmful system of arbitrary detention in Libya with the backing of the European Union (EU).

The Libyan Coast Guard returned 13,185 refugees and asylum seekers to the country from January to August 2018.

“We are extremely worried for our patients,” Defranciscis said. “How can they recover when locked inside cells, in very poor hygiene conditions and sleeping on blankets or mattresses placed on the floor that cause incredible pain for those suffering from severe burns?”

Refugees sit inside the Ganzour shelter after being transferred from the airport road due to fighting in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on September 5, 2018. (Photo by AFP)

This is while many of the survivors are mourning the loss of their family members, the aid group further said.

“Instead of receiving the support they need, refugees, and migrants are arrested and detained in deplorable living conditions, without basic safeguards, legal recourse, or alternatives.”

MSF demanded an end to “the arbitrary detention of thousands of refugees and migrants across Libya.”

The refugees have been fleeing conflict zones and economic difficulties in their home countries.

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