As EU heads of state and government gather in Brussels to discuss migration, the Ocean Viking search and rescue vessel is preparing to set sail from the French port of Marseille.
The Norwegian-flagged boat is chartered by SOS Méditerranée, a humanitarian organisation that has rescued close to 33,000 people over the past few years.
Over that same period, EU member states have been unable to muster a coordinated response amid political wrangling over migration and asylum reforms.
“There is a failure of solidarity among European states,” said Sophie Beau, who co-founded SOS Méditerranée in 2015.
“It is really an emergency, the summer is coming, we know it every year,” she said on Wednesday (23 June) in a telephone call.
Thousands of people have since perished and many more likely to have drowned without a trace in a sea that has since become the world’s deadliest migratory route.
On Thursday, EU leaders are set to claim that saving lives is a priority in a broader discussion on migration. Those talks are set to kick off late afternoon and then possibly roll over into dinner at 8PM.
They will also reinforce their shared objective to boost relations with countries of origin and transit, including renewed efforts to seal a new migrant-swap deal with Turkey.
“The angle is on the external dimension of migration,” a senior EU diplomat told reporters in Brussels.
German Bundestag president Wolfgang Schäuble drew a more concise picture.
“We will only make progress if we cooperate with regimes,” he had told the European Parliament earlier this month.
“There are moral costs, ladies and gentlemen, that we will have to assume,” he added.
Among those costs is Libya and its notorious detention centres, where up to 5,000 migrants and refugees are essentially being held hostage until they can pay their way out.
Recent reports of rapes and sexual abuse of minors have surfaced at the government run Shara al-Zawiya detention centre in Tripoli.
One 15 year old girl was rushed to the hospital after attempting suicide.
Doctors without Borders (MSF) has also pulled out of two Tripoli-based detention centres, Mabani and Abu Salim.
The head of MSF Libya, Beatrice Lau, said the persistent levels of violence against everyone “has reached a level that we are no longer able to accept.”
The new unity government is also making life difficult for other humanitarian aid workers, including the EU-funded UN Refugee Agency.
But for the Ocean Viking and its 30-odd crew of experienced seafarers and rescuers, the mission ahead is clear.
“Nothing has improved these last six years unfortunately and so our objective today is to still save lives,” said Beau.
Equipment and food is currently being loaded onto the boat as it prepares to sail towards international waters off Libya.
The race is against time and a reinforced EU trained and financed Libyan Coast Guard that has intercepted some 14,000 people so far this year, often with the help of Turkey.
At the shipyard in Marseille, the 70-metre Ocean Viking was dwarfed by the surrounding luxury cruise liners on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, on board, a hospital unit, medical staff, and a search and rescue team are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
In April, they witnessed the tragic aftermath of a drowning that had killed 130.
Those lucky enough to be found alive will be brought onboard and cared for. Women and children will be placed in a shared facility and separated from men.
Behind one of the shelters for women is a row of sinks for washing and steel mirrors.
“It can be quite emotional,” said Claire Juchat of SOS Méditerranée, motioning to the mirrors.
“Some haven’t seen themselves in a long time,” she said, suggesting that they may have been kept captive in Libya.
The EU called on Tuesday on Lebanon political leaders to form a government without delay, following the nomination of businessman Najib Mikati as prime minister. “It is now of crucial importance that a credible and accountable government is formed in Lebanon without delay, one that is able to address the severe economic and social crises the country is facing,” the EU said in a statement.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – A Boeing aircraft with 165 people on board is preparing for an emergency landing at Simferopol airport due to technical problems with its engine, an emergency services spokesperson said.
“A Boeing is preparing for an emergency landing in Simferopol, on board of which, according to preliminary information, there are 165 passengers,” the spokesperson said.
The aircraft, which performs a flight from Yakutia to Crimea, had vibration in one of the engines, he added.
For much of her girlhood, Lucy Koriang* would spend her days taking the family’s goat herd out, walking for several kilometres a day, looking for the best grazing spots.
Being a goat herder was not a job she enjoyed or chose, especially in the unbearably high temperatures of Isiolo county, northern Kenya, where she lives. Her father, like most parents in Ngaremara village, saw little point in taking his children to school. Moving from the shelter of one thorny acacia tree to another, the 13-year-old would get lost in her thoughts, dreaming of a different life.
“Then one day they came and took me away from the field. It was a kidnap,” Lucy said. Four men, all in their mid-twenties, grabbed her and carried her off to become a wife to one of them. “The goats were over there,” she says, pointing to a spot in the distance. “They never asked me anything. I think I got pregnant that same day.”
In Ngaremara, similar stories of early marriages, unintended motherhood and perpetual poverty are commonplace. Stories of disillusioned and fearful girls denied their right to education and instead married off to men they never loved or even knew, men often two or three times their age.
These girls become part of the statistics – among the 260 million boys and girls who, according to British prime minister Boris Johnson “were being denied the schooling that should be their birthright” even before the Covid pandemic.
This week Johnson and Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, host the Global Education Summit, with the ambitious aim of facilitating a forum for leaders to pledge money that can be used to provide education in marginalised communities like Ngaremara. They hope to raise $5bn (£3.6bn) at a time when the UK is slashing its overseas aid budget and other nations face pressing needs on all sides.
Samuel Kiragu oversees standards at the education department in Isiolo county. He says there are probably 7,000 children in the county who have either dropped out of school or never started. Most are girls.
“It is about poverty and outdated cultural practices,” he says. “There are those who wish to be in class but lack access to education. In any case, we want to help the community understand that education is a basic right for the children.”
Government resources are tight, and the girls in Isiolo are among 5,000 out-of-school girls from marginalised communities and low-income households benefiting from the Education for Life initiative, which is supported by the UK.
It’s a relatively small, five-year project which runs until 2023 and targets girls aged between 10–19 years. About 70% never enrolled in school and 30% have had some formal education but dropped out.
In Isiolo, 1,034 girls, many of them mothers, are enrolled in 26 “catchup” centres, where they spend 6–9 months learning basic literacy skills. Similar programmes in Garissa, Kilifi, Migori and Kisumu counties are working with another 4,000 girls.
The literacy and life skills provided in these centres are intended to facilitate those aged 14 or under getting back into formal elementary schools, while those aged 15 years and above will be integrated into informal education or employment.
But breaking the deeply entrenched cultural barriers is no easy task for local organisations.
“We got men here asking, ‘why are you targeting the girls who are our source of wealth? Why invest in girls who will finally get married and leave home?’ Some would also hide children with disabilities,” says Patricia Makau, Education for Life coordinator at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Kenya, one of the implementing partners.
“You get around this by organising community forums to get acceptance from the patriarchs. We have to be as gentle as possible so as not to upset the fragile social balance. Though most of the underage girls are married, empowering them means they can become assets to their families.”
In one such centre at Atan village, Janet Ekura, the education facilitator, was jotting the day’s lesson on a whiteboard – the term “teacher” is avoided for its hierarchical tone. Since January 2021, Ekura has been taking care of about 30 girls between the ages of 14–19.
During a break in the lessons, the young mothers dash off to a nearby homestead to check on their children, who are left under the care of a group of elderly women.
Ekura says the girls were scared and shy when the centres opened. “You have 19-year-olds who could not even write their names, make a telephone call using a cell phone – since they could not tell one contact from another, or input phone security features. Self-esteem was at an all-time low. Look at them now, they are handling basic arithmetic and language lessons. They can now speak out. Education is about confidence.”
Seated in another corner is Agnes Epong, an administrator. She too had to overcome the community’s stereotypes about women to become one of the mentors. After the lesson, Epong sits down with a group of about 10 girls, mentoring them on life skills.
“You were married early. Some of you are mothers and you can’t change [that]. Losing hope will not take you anywhere. But education will,” she says. The girls listen intently to every word. Epong has got used to the threats from some fathers and other local men who felt that their “old-age insurance” was slipping away. “We still prefer dialogue over force,” she says.
Persuasion has won local hearts, including that of John Eshua, 70, a village elder whose son is married to one of the girls in the centre. In Ngaremara, Eshua goes by his slang name maneno mingi or “the talkative one” in Swahili. He is not afraid of speaking up for the girls. “We should stop substituting a girl with a cow. Why should 10-year-old girls have babies? I told my son to let the girl get some education first before other social engagements. The girls are the light of the community.”