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Refugees took over a ship that had picked them up in the Mediterranean, after realizing that the boat was taking them back to Libya on Wednesday. Malta's armed forces brought the boat to a Maltese port on Thursday, where police took some of the refugees away for questioning. (Photo: /Twitter)

Not Piracy But 'A Matter of Survival': Refugees Take Control of Ship Headed Back to 'Hell' in Libya

"'Pirates'—a new label for refugees who refused to return to slave camps in Libya."

Julia Conley

Human rights advocates and other critics on Thursday called for empathy and aid for more than 100 refugees who took control of a tanker that had picked them up in the Mediterranean this week.

The group reportedly commandeered the ship, a tanker name El Hiblu 1, and turn it toward Europe after realizing it was headed back to Libya, the country they had just left in hopes that they would be able to seek asylum in Europe. As the refugees were detained after arriving at a Maltese port Thursday, they were referred to as "pirates" by media outlets.  

Far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denounced the 108 refugees' desperate attempt to continue their journey as planned as "an act of piracy," leading to condemnation from rights groups.

"Imagine escaping from a concentration camp," wrote the rescue group Mediterranea Saving Humans on social media. "During the escape they catch you and want to bring you back. Would you rebel? So they made the 'pirates' of the freighter El Hiblu 1, to save themselves and their children. Imagine, then judge."

"In the name of fundamental rights, [remember] that we are dealing with human beings fleeing hell," the group added.

Medicins Sans Frontiers, also known as Doctors Without Borders, wrote that the "desperate and dangerous situation" underscored "the broken system at sea and the despair of vulnerable people."

The refugees were intercepted by the tanker on the same day the European Union announced it would suspend its sea-based patrols of the Mediterranean Sea, which have allowed the E.U. to rescue thousands of migrants and refugees in recent years.

The decision comes amid pressure from the Italian government, including Salvini, to close Italy's ports to NGO rescue ships.

The end of the E.U.'s sea rescues will mean "more interceptions by Libyan forces and return of women, men, and children to nightmarish conditions and treatment in Libya," Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.

Tens of thousands of refugees who have been returned to Libya by the E.U.-funded Libyan coast guard have been forced to live in conditions which the United Nations has called "an outrage to the conscience of humanity." The country's government operates detention centers where migrants are locked up indefinitely with no access to medical care, little food, and the constant threat of rape, torture, and human trafficking.

The Maltese military sent a special operations team to the El Hiblu 1 on Thursday to bring the ship to Malta, where the refugees were then taken into police custody for questioning.

On social media, some applauded the bravery of the refugees who had taken direct action to avoid being sent back to Libya.

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