Libyan coast guard vessel returning migrants to Tripoli in 2017 | Photo: picture alliance/M. Ben Khalifa
Libyan coast guard vessel returning migrants to Tripoli in 2017 | Photo: picture alliance/M. Ben Khalifa

Libya’s coast guard returned around 50 migrants to detention centers in Tripoli who had earlier been picked up at sea by a Maltese commercial vessel. At least five migrants have died and another seven remain missing from inflatable boats, on which the migrants had attempted to reach Europe, according to the UNHCR.

Approximately 50 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan, including eight women and three children, disembarked at a naval base in Libya's capital Tripoli on Wednesday after being taken there by Libya’s coast guard. According to the IOM, they were detained by local authorities upon arrival, following a delay of several hours.

The migrants had been rescued by a Maltese commercial vessel in Maltese territorial waters, but had to be handed over to Libya’s coast guard after Malta and Italy both closed their ports to migrants amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Five migrants were confirmed dead, their bodies were recovered Wednesday off the coast of Libya after their boat capsized, the UNHCR said. Seven other migrants were missing and approximately 49 taken back to Libya, IOM and UNHCR reported.

Situation of Libyan ports remains uncertain

There has been uncertainty prior to the incident about whether migrants would be able to dock in Tripoli. Last week, a large group of about 280 migrants were prevented from disembarking because port city was undergoing heavy shelling at the time. And it remains unclear whether for future interceptions of migrants, Libya’s ports would be open.

"We have no clarity as to the procedures that are followed or will be followed from now on," the IOM's Libya office said in an email.

Meanwhile the practice of returning migrants to Libya remains highly controversial, as they often land in overcrowded detention centers or at the mercy of traffickers. 

Coronavirus in Libya

There is also widespread concern that the overcrowded facilities could become breeding grounds for the spread of the novel coronavirus and other diseases.

“We reiterate that people rescued at sea should not be returned to unsafe ports,” the IOM said. “An alternative to disembarkation in Libya must be found urgently.”

The UN has appealed for a cease-fire so Libyan authorities focus on fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Libya currently has confirmed 48 cases of the virus and one fatality. The virus could potentially devastate the war-torn country.

Front lines in Libya's civil war | Credit: DWSecurity situation in Libya remains precarious

Meanwhile fighting continues to rage on around Tripoli as heavy bombardments could be heard near the city center on Wednesday. Libya's internationally recognized government has been fighting against forces associated with warlord Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive to capture the Libyan capital a year ago. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the conflict, and more than 200,000 people have been displaced, according to the UN.

The UN mission in Libya has voiced concern about the escalation of violence between the rival forces in recent days, particularly about the release of over 400 jail inmates in a western town recently taken by Tripoli-allied militias. Libya’s Justice Ministry said it was alarmed by reports of “desecration of corpses, retribution, including looting, robberies and torching of public and private properties” in Sorman and other western towns taken by Tripoli-allied forces. The United Nations' Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has also expressed grave concern over the reports.

No cease-fire in sight

Following nearly a decade of chronic unrest, Libya has transformed the main transfer point for African migrants hoping to reach the European Union. Following a relative lull in crossings in the first quarter of the year, more people are expected to attempt the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea as the weather improves for spring and summer.

Hundreds of people die of drowning each year attempting the crossing in vessels that aren’t seaworthy.

With Reuters, AFP, AP


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