Seeking safety on Europe’s shores: Refugees Face Death and Despair
19th October 2021
Maryam* is 29 years old. She fled Afghanistan after an attempted abduction of her daughter, and arrived at Camp Moria on Lesvos island in January 2019. The safety of her family was threatened multiple times during the journey from Afghanistan to Greece so her arrival to Lesvos inevitably came with a huge sense of relief. Shortly after her arrival, the health of her and her family significantly deteriorated.
Her daughter’s language had regressed and she was also experiencing nightmares, weight loss, bed wetting and seizures.
Maryam herself was pregnant and becoming unwell with a heart condition that was diagnosed during her previous pregnancy. For months, she was unable to access a review with a cardiologist, despite developing palpitations, shortness of breath and chest pain.
By August 2020, Maryam had miraculously given birth to a healthy baby boy.
Two weeks later, Moria camp went up in flames. Maryam and her husband evacuated with their two week old baby and their daughter. They joined thousands of refugees who spent the next 7 days sleeping on the side of the main road. They had no shelter, limited access to drinking water, no reliable source of food and no way to wash. A few days into this, Maryam realised that she was no longer producing breast milk. She looked for help, but with access strictly controlled by the army and riot police, she had to rely on tiny amounts of bottled water to sustain her family.
After a week, they, along with thousands of other refugees were forcefully moved into a new camp.
Yet again, they found limited access to food and water, inadequate access to WASH facilities and
over-pressured healthcare services, all whilst COVID was rapidly spreading inside the new camp.
It’s now one year since this disaster that affected so many people. But what has changed?
How many people are still living in Europe without basic human rights, without dignity, feeling like
nobody cares? What other atrocities are taking place within Europe or at European borders?
9th September 2021 marked the one year anniversary of the fire that burned down Moria Camp in Lesvos,
Greece. The media flurry that initially focussed on the island, dissolved within a couple of weeks.
Now, the people living in this camp, and in many other locations across Europe, have once again been
forgotten, and human rights violations continue to happen on a large scale.(1,2,3,4,5)
This blog looks at another infringement on rights for refugees that has happened at European borders this year.
The Mediterranean Sea
“In the first seven months of 2021, up to 1,000 people have died trying to cross the
Since the start of the year, there have been countless news stories about deaths,
injuries and blocked rescue of people trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Before people even get to the Mediterranean, they have suffered horrific ordeals, and
may have crossed several borders to attempt to reach safety. Many have been tortured,
sexually or physically assaulted, or imprisoned. Many are forced into prostitution or
Meanwhile, Europe is attempting to increase border strength(1). This results in
individuals being forced into the hands of smugglers to cross the Mediterranean in
small, dangerous, overcrowded boats.
It has been reported that European countries have paid non-EU states to assist with border control, by asking them to intercept boats at sea and undertake ‘pushbacks’(1,3,4). In the first half of 2020, there were over 6000 individuals that were pushed back from Greece, with documented ‘excessive use of force’. A lawsuit was filed in 2020 against Greece for abandoning refugees in life rafts at sea “without food, water, life jackets or any means to call for help”(3).
Meanwhile, Italian authorities have given responsibility to Libya to oversee Mediterranean rescue operations. Since the start of the pandemic, 15,500 refugees were pushed back to Tripoli(3), where they were taken to detention centres and faced torture. Maltese authorities have used private vessels to turn back boats.
Whilst EU states are employing these ‘alternative’ tactics, many rescue NGO boats have remained blocked in Mediterranean ports, with authorities claiming that this is for ‘administrative reasons’(1,3). Some NGO boats have been able to get out of port to assist with rescues, and when they do, NGOs report rescuing people with multiple injuries, hypothermia, or severe chemical burns, which sometimes result from high concentrations of fuel mixing with seawater. On one occasion in 2020, a rescue NGO boat responded to a boat in distress in Libyan waters, which had been ignored by both Italian and Libyan authorities. Unfortunately, by the time the NGO was able to get to the boat, they discovered dozens of bodies floating in the waves(5).
On average, 44 people per week died in the Mediterranean in the first half of 2021(1).
This is clearly a huge breach of human rights, that is managing to go relatively undetected by mainstream media. Borders are being cruelly managed with blatant disregard for the safety of those who are already escaping danger. This should be a reminder that increasing defences of borders is not going to solve this problem. Creating safe and legal routes that allow people to seek safety will reduce the number of deaths and injuries, as well as the amount of psychological trauma experienced by those seeking safety.
Authorities must also be held accountable for their actions, and appropriate investigation should be launched for those found to be endangering lives.
Whilst we continue to have lack of transparency, illegal pushbacks and outsourcing of border control, European borders will not be safe.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. 2021. Mediterranean migration in depth | MSF. [online] Available at: <https://www.msf.org/mediterranean-migration-depth> [Accessed 5 October 2021].
UNHCR., 2021. Thousands of refugees and migrants suffer extreme rights abuses on journeys to Africa's Mediterranean coast, new UNHCR/MMC report shows. [online] UNHCR. Available at: <https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2020/7/5f1ee9314/thousands-refugees-migrants-suffer-extreme-rights-abuses-journeys-africas.html> [Accessed 5 October 2021].
The Guardian. 2021. Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/05/revealed-2000-refugee-deaths-linked-to-eu-pushbacks> [Accessed 5 October 2021].
Aljazeera.com. 2021. NGO rescues nearly 100 migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean. [online] Available at: <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/30/ngo-rescues-nearly-100-migrants-and-refugees-in-the-mediterranean> [Accessed 5 October 2021].
The Guardian. 2021. A mayday call, a dash across the Mediterranean … and 130 souls lost at sea. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/apr/25/a-mayday-call-a-dash-across-the-ocean-and-130-souls-lost-at-sea> [Accessed 5 October 2021].