More than 2,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organization of Migration.
Medical humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym MSF) was forced last Thursday to shut down its search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean on board the vessel Aquarius, blaming a “dishonest smearing and obstructive campaign”.
MSF said its activities on Aquarius, carried out jointly with SOS Mediterranee, assisted nearly 30,000 people in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta since the operations started in February 2016.
Al Jazeera spoke to MSF’s International President Joanne Liu on the sidelines of an intergovernmental conference on global migration about Aquarius’ future, the “campaign” against migrants, and the detention centres in Libya that the rescued migrants will be taken back to.
Al Jazeera: How difficult was it to continue operations in recent months and what forced you to stop them?
Joanne Liu: The last few months, rescuing people in the Mediterranean was made more and more difficult for us. We were regularly blocked and impeded in trying to save lives. We tried to get a flag for several weeks but things didn’t work out. First Gibraltar and then Panama, under increasing pressure from different states, decided to withdraw the flag. So we decided that we needed to close that sequence and see how we go forward.
Al Jazeera: What kind of pressure from states were you under?
Liu: Reality is that it was part of a bigger obstructive campaign, a dishonest smearing campaign that attacked us for being in collusion with the smugglers and the mafia.
Al Jazeera: What happens now with the Aquarius and the rescue mission?
Liu: With the sabotage of the Aquarius, gone is the most basic humanitarian and legal commitment: saving lives at sea.
For the time being, we are re-assessing so it’s a bit too early to answer that. We can’t resume unless we have a boat flag. There’s no sign of that happening right now. We are here at the conference in Morocco that is looking for safer migration routes. We will talk to the countries present and put forward what the reality is.
It’s clear that migration is a very, very politically loaded issue. Countries need to understand that human rights of a person do not disappear as soon as they cross the border. We just can’t understand why saving lives has become illegal.
Al Jazeera: What are the countries opposing your operations saying to this?
Liu: Right now, it is being portrayed that the number of migrants reaching the shores of Europe is decreasing. That’s being shown as a success story by these people. But on the flip side, that’s because more and more people are being rescued by the Libyan coastguards and taken back to the filthy, overcrowded detention centres in Libya where almost 5,000 of them are living in inhumane conditions. We’re telling them that the cost of their success is human lives and dignity.
Al Jazeera: What is the condition of these detainees in those centres?
Liu: These people are deprived of their human rights just because they are migrating somewhere and asking for protection.
At the centres, we have been told stories of harassment, abuse and rape. These people are kept in unventilated, filthy rooms. They are underfed and deprived of basic humanitarian conditions.
These places are basically centres for abuse. For people who wanted safety for themselves and their families.
Al Jazeera: So will this UN migration pact, agreed upon by 164 countries, make a difference to these people’s lives?
Liu: Things change when you want them to change. We have more than 160 countries who have adopted the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). Now it’s important to keep the pressure on them so that it translates into concrete action instead of just being government policies that is deepening the suffering of the population along the migratory routes.
Saving lives is non-negotiable. Saving lives is what we do, what we will continue to do and fight for, and what we urge you to defend.