In letter to Ghassan Salamé, MSF defends role in merchant ship Nivin refugee fiasco

Aquarius rescue ship run by NGO SOS Mediterranee and MSF in the search and rescue zone off the coast of Libya on September 29, 2018. (File photo: AFP)

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has defended the role it played in the situation that developed with regard to around 90 refugees and migrants on board the merchant ship Nivin last month.

In a letter to Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, William Hennequin in charge of MSF operations in Libya, refers to a recent media interview in which Salamé referred to the incident. According to the statement, after being rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the ship’s crew, these people were taken back to Libya.

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“Arriving in the port of Misrata on 10 November, they refused to disembark. Ten days later, on 20 November, Libyan security forces stormed the ship and forcibly removed everyone on board,” Hennequin said in the statement.

“You referred to negotiations by UN agencies and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) with the people on board the ship – who you appeared to judge as “divided” and partially responsible for the storming of the ship due to their desperate obstinacy to uphold their rights,” he said.

William Hennequin in charge of MSF operations in Libya. (Supplied)

William Hennequin in charge of MSF operations in Libya. (Supplied)

Sequence of event

MSF contradicted Salamé explanation on the sequence of events and said: “You declared that you were “able to extract 14 people peacefully,” referring to a group of people who, after four days of tense confrontation, chose to disembark voluntarily from the docked ship.

“You made no mention, however, of the fact that, after disembarking, these 14 people – who included a mother and her four-month-old baby, adolescents and people with minor injuries – were taken from the cargo ship to a detention centre, where they remain to this day,” said Hennequin in the statement.

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This was a major omission for anyone trying to understand what happened in Misrata and, by extension, to understand the brutal reality in store for people either intercepted or rescued at sea and returned to Libya.

MSF also said that there was never any question of MSF teams in Misrata assuming a negotiating role with the refugees and migrants on board the ship. “There was even less question of our teams trying to persuade them that an indefinite stay in one of Libya’s official detention centres would be the answer to their distress,” it said.

Ghassan Salame addresses a press conference following an international conference on Libya in Palermo on November 13, 2018. (AFP)

Ghassan Salame addresses a press conference following an international conference on Libya in Palermo on November 13, 2018. (AFP)

Medical care

In the letter, MSF claims that the victims were provided medical care even as negotiations continued. “Between 11 and 18 November, we negotiated with the Libyan coastguard and other forces present to gain access to the docked Nivin and provide medical treatment to those on board”, it said.

“We also alerted the Libyan authorities and international organizations to the pressing need to come up with a solution to the situation – to make sure that violence and detention were not all that awaited these people – but our efforts fell on deaf ears”.

“Before the operation of forced disembarkation was launched on 20 November, we were able to see with our own eyes the despair and extreme vulnerability of the people on board the Nivin,” said the MSF statement.

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They had survived periods of detention in Libya lasting from a few months to several years. They had been held in official Ministry of Interior detention centres, where more than 5,000 refugees and migrants currently languish, and to whom international organisations such as ours have only limited access.

MSF statement concluded by saying that “it is time to call unequivocally for an end to this sinister policy, and for the UN to use all available means to make tangible progress on ways to protect refugees and migrants trapped in Libya, while scaling up existing evacuation mechanisms outside the country”.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:54 - GMT 06:54