Hundreds of migrants have been picked up in the Mediterranean this month and sent back to Libya. All the migrants were taken to detention centers, where the UN migration agency IOM has warned they are at increased risk of human trafficking.
At least 953 migrants, including 85 children, trying to flee Libya by boat were intercepted and returned to Libyan shores during the first two weeks of 2020, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Tuesday.
The migrants were picked up by Libya's coast guard, which is trained and funded by the European Union, and one commercial vessel. Most were disembarked in Tripoli and all were then taken to detention centers, the IOM said in a statement.
NGO search and rescue boats reported having rescued 237 others, the IOM said.
High risk of human trafficking: IOM spokesperson
The migrants returned to detention centers are at high risk of being trafficked by criminal gangs that have been able to thrive due to worsening violence in the Libyan capital, according to IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli.
"The security situation gives room to these criminal gangs and to these smuggling groups to prey on the migrants and their wish to leave a rather unsafe country," Msehli told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It's definitely increasingly worrying," she said.
Anais Deprade, a spokesperson for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also said refugees and migrants returned to Libyan shores were at risk of "falling back into the clutches of traffickers," according to Thomson Reuters. Deprade said MSF knew of migrants who had been sold to traffickers from some detention centers.
Escalating violence blamed for increased departures
More than 1,000 migrants have left Libya since January 1, with fighting in Tripoli at its worst since the conflict between rival authorities began nine months ago. Migrants who spoke to IOM staff at disembarkation points in Libya said the worsening violence in and around the capital and the deteriorating humanitarian situation were the main reasons for the increase in the number of people fleeing.
During the first two weeks of 2019, according to the IOM, no migrants were returned to Libya, but 23 bodies were recovered from the sea during that period. “The current sudden increase in departures is especially alarming given the very limited search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean,” the IOM statement said.
“Measures to protect lives and guarantee the safety of these people are not in place” at locations in Libya where migrants are being dropped off, the agency said. “Alternative solutions that safeguard lives must be found to alleviate the suffering of thousands of men, women, and children who are held in inhumane conditions.”Disrupted air travel leaves migrants stranded
More than 1,000 other migrants who have registered for the IOM’s voluntary return program remain stranded in Libya because of disruption to aviation activities.
"While our operations and programs continue …, they have been largely affected, especially with regards to the safe movement of migrants to transit points and airports. A minimum degree of security is needed for us to be able to safely assist 500 people scheduled to return home in the coming days,” said IOM Libya Chief of Mission, Federico Soda.
Germany to host Libya summit
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to host a conference in Berlin on Sunday aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the Libya conflict. An attempt in Moscow earlier this week to broker a truce between the rival groups failed.
The Berlin summit was organized in coordination with the UN and will be attended by representatives from the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, as well as officials from African and Arab countries and the European Union.
With ap, dpa, Thomson Reuters Foundation