Libya: Mediterranean crossing continues to claim lives

Published: 17 June 2016 10:17 CET

By Soraya Dali-Balta, IFRC

In countries far from Europe, where conflict, disasters and poverty are rife, thousands of people have made the difficult choice of gambling their lives on the possibility of a better, safer life. They head north, crossing deserts and seas, balancing risk with the dream of a future.

Libya has become the main departure point for migrants to reach Europe, and along the Mediterranean, many tragedies have been unveiling. The gamble made does not always pay off. The United Nations has said more than 10,000 people have died since 2014 while trying to cross the Mediterranean, adding that a sharp increase in boat incidents has been recorded so far in 2016. These numbers, however, did not deter hopeful migrants from attempting to make the crossing.

For months, Libyan Red Crescent volunteers have taken on the heart-rending task of collecting the remains of those who do not survive the crossing. In late May, the Red Crescent retrieved 140 bodies that washed ashore in the city of Zuwarah. For three days, volunteers worked day and night to retrieve the bodies, cover and tag them, and transport them for burial. Eighty two women,  fifty men, and eight children whose names had been lost along with the future they had dreamt of. Their only identity now was the tags attached by Red Crescent volunteers.

This week, Libyan Red Crescent retrieved another 14 bodies that washed up on Zuwarah’s shores. Nasser Al Hajjaj is one of the volunteers in this branch who had the difficult task of caring for these people.

“The bodies collected in the past two days are decomposed, meaning they had been in the sea for quite some time. It is hard to identify them and conclude whether these migrants had been on the same boat as those whose bodies we retrieved a couple of weeks ago.”

There is no easy way to do this job, and yet Nasser and other Red Crescent volunteers must put aside the difficult emotions that come with the task, in order to provide a final dignity for those who have died.

“We were not used to doing this type of work before 2014, and it is particularly painful to retrieve the bodies of young children,” Nasser said. “The International Committee of the Red Cross trained us on body retrieval. We are also receiving psychosocial support to be able to continue carrying out these tasks.”

Libyan Red Crescent also assists survivors of migration tragedies along the country’s coastline through the provision of necessary relief aid, such as food, drinking water, blankets, clothes and hygiene kits, as well as health services. The organization is receiving support from the European Union and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“Despite the miseries we face, there are some moments of relief that we get to experience, particularly when we succeed in connecting survivors with their families back home,” he said, speaking about the restoring family links programme launched with ICRC. “It is very emotional to hear migrants calling their families to tell them they had survived.”

The IFRC had called on governments to ensure safe routes for migration and action to address the reasons why so many people have had to risk life on chance.