Within three days, Libya's coast guard intercepted 935 migrants in the Mediterranean and returned them to Libya. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) once again denounced the longstanding practice in light of the documented abuse and exploitation that await returnees in Libyan detention camps.
From Sunday until Tuesday this week, a total of 935 migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea toward Europe from Libya were intercepted by Libya's coast guard and returned to the north African country, located some 300 kilometers (185 miles) from the Italian coast. That's according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
On Sunday (November 1), the Libyan navy recovered 144 migrants in the Mediterranean. The next day, 413 people were intercepted and returned to Libya, according to IOM. And on Tuesday, the same happened to another 378.
Hundreds of "mothers, fathers, sons and daughters were brought back into a cycle of exploitation and abuse that they were trying to flee," Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the UN agency, said on Twitter.
IOM staff was present at the port to "provide urgently needed assistance" to the migrants, IOM said, also via Twitter. According to Msehli, most of the migrants were then transferred to Libyan detention centers where "dire conditions" of abuse, extortion and exploitation await them.
"People are thrown back into the same horrific conditions they are trying to flee," Msehli told InfoMigrants.
According to IOM and UNHCR insiders, almost 3,200 people are being held in eleven detention centers in Libya. This includes many refugees fleeing armed conflicts and persecution. On September 28, masked militiamen abducted 60 migrants, including two dozen children, from the town of al-Ajaylat west of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Libya has seen ongoing conflict since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. For years, human traffickers have taken advantage of the volatile situation, thus turning the country into a key corridor for migrants fleeing war and poverty in a desperate bid to reach Europe.
10,000 returns this year
"I am stuck in Libya, my only alternative is to go to Europe: Repatriations to my country are restricted due to the COVID, I cannot go to the south of Libya to reach Algeria because the desert is too risky for blacks. … My only way out is the sea," Ali, an 18-year-old Guinean told InfoMigrants French in September.
Since January, according to IOM data, around 10,000 people who tried to flee Libya have been intercepted and returned there by Libyan forces. Among them were 692 women and 556 minors. In comparison, 9,225 people were intercepted and returned in 2019.
Libya's coast guard is in charge of the returns. The loosely organized and controversial force, which the EU funds and trains to prevent migrants from reaching European soil, employs former militia members and has a record of abuses including torture.
IOM and other organizations like Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have repeatedly denounced the policy and called on the EU to review its cooperation with Libya.
Despite the coast guard's effectiveness and the risks of crossing the Mediterranean, migrants stuck in Libya continue to attempt the dangerous crossing: With nearly 30,000 arrivals in the first ten months of the year, Italy and Malta have already seen twice as many as in all of 2019.
573 deaths in central Mediterranean
Recorded deaths on the central Mediterranean route, meanwhile, show a reverse trend: While close to 1,000 migrants perished last year, 573 have succumbed to the same fate so far this year. IOM warns that the real number of fatalities may be much higher.
Just last week, at least 11 migrants, including a pregnant woman, drowned off Libya when their boat capsized. The incident was the third of its kind in the Mediterranean in a week: On October 20, at least 15 migrants drowned after their boat capsized off the Libyan coast and five people died on October 22 when their boat capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Not all migrants who attempt the crossing are intercepted though: This week, a total of 27 boats carrying at least 460 migrants arrived on Lampedusa on Monday and Tuesday. The Italian island south of Sicily is designated as a migrant hotspot. The Lampedusa facility, which has room for only 95 people, now hosts more than 1,350 migrants.