“My heart flew away from me”

The Doctors Without Borders organization has called on European governments to stop the "systematic" exploitation in Libya. Its president Joanne Liu shares impressions from Libyan refugee camps.

Blue sky, no cloud to protect from the piercing sun. It’s 34 degrees somewhere in Tripoli. In the middle of a square, a pregnant woman on one leg – let’s call her Hewan. Hour after hour she holds this position until she faints and is taken to the hospital.

Later, in the hospital, she tells Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, what she experienced in one of the so-called internment camps in Libya. Internment camps are places where migrants and refugees who don’t make it to Italian shores live locked up.

Torture, beatings and rape

Hewan tells of torture, beatings and rapes. "My heart flew away from me as I stood on one leg in the stinging sun," she told Liu. Especially pregnant women are the target of cruelties. A pregnant woman was raped while her husband was beaten in the yard, Hewan said.

On other days, pregnant women were deliberately taken out of the group to rape them, he said. "It is a thriving business of kidnapping, torture and extortion," Liu says. People in the camps begged her to free them, she said. "But all I could say to these whispering people was, ‘I hear you,’" says the petite woman with long black hair.

Factories of suffering

The purpose of these camps is clear to Liu: "These are factories of suffering," says the president of Doctors Without Borders. Every single word articulates it clearly. They are harsh words. Her goal is to talk about what she has seen. "The suffering must be stopped," Liu said.

No human being should be sent to these camps anymore. While she was visiting one, she said, 200 people who had been picked up at sea arrived. Just on Wednesday, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos announced that in August

81 percent fewer boat people arrived on Italian shores in 2017 compared to the same month the previous year. These "success stories" are what Doctors Without Borders calls "hypocrisy and, at worst, cynical complicity in organized human trafficking".

Open letter to EU governments

Doctors Without Borders urged European governments to look in an open letter Thursday. "No one can claim not to have known," it says. Closing the borders and deporting people out of sight to these camps in Libya is not a solution, he said. Liu calls for legal channels for them. "Sometimes our teams also meet people with refugee status" in the camps. But it is seldom possible to get them out.

The organization also criticizes that hardly any diplomats and international organizations are still on the ground in Libya. It is unsafe and dangerous for humanitarian workers and journalists. The UN Refugee Agency, for example, is in a "delicate" situation. The situation is unclear. Responsibilities over official internment camps sometimes changed overnight.

"It’s an illusion that if we give more money to UNHCR, we will improve the situation," says Arjan Hehenkamp, director general of Doctors Without Borders.

Taking responsibility

Giving money, but not taking responsibility. This is the strategy of the EU Commission and European governments. They increased their aid to the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in recent months. Liu criticizes the. Because in this "confusing" situation it cannot be guaranteed that the money arrives at the right place.

The situation in Libya is complicated. Liu also sees that. "There is no quick and easy solution," she repeats. But is letting all these migrants reach Italy’s shores a solution, asks an Italian journalist. "No," Liu and her colleagues.

"We are not in favor of open borders, but the suffering cannot continue," says MSF advisor Jan Peter Stellema. How to improve the situation is a matter of perplexity. But they want to put prere on politicians and institutions. So that they think about new solutions and no longer ignore the suffering.

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