Five people have died and more than 500 have been returned to Libya in separate incidents in the central Mediterranean in the space of two days.
In the latest shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea involving migrants headed to Europe, two women and three children reportedly drowned when a boat carrying dozens of people capsized off the Libyan coast, a UN official told the Associated Press (AP) news agency on Wednesday (March 31).
Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the incident took place late Tuesday. A fishing boat and Libya's coast guard managed to rescue around 77 migrants and returned them to Libya, she said.
According to IOM's Msehli, "a total of 400 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya late Tuesday and taken to detention centers," AP reported. Over the weekend, Libya's coast guard had already intercepted nearly 1,000 migrants and brought them back to Libya.
Tuesday's deadly shipwreck was the latest along the central Mediterranean migration route. According to the IOM, 232 migrants died in the central Mediterranean between January 1 and April 1 this year, up from 137 in the same period in 2020.
A day later, on Wednesday (March 31), Libya's coast guard intercepted an inflatable boat carrying 138 Europe-bound migrants off the country's northwestern coast, the country's navy said. More than half of the migrants were from Sudan, while the rest were from other African countries, the navy added.
According to the AFP news agency, among the group were nine women and three children. The whole group was taken to a naval base in the capital Tripoli on Libya's northwestern coast.
Over the past decade, Libya has become a main transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. The oil-rich country of some seven million people plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
People smugglers have thrived in the subsequent lawlessness, often packing desperate families into overcrowded and unsafe rubber boats that capsize along the dangerous sea route across the central Mediterranean to Europe. Over the last several years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Europe either on their own or after being rescued at sea.
Despite the dangers -- more than 17,000 people have drowned along the way in the central Mediterranean since 2014 --, the number of migrants risking the Mediterranean crossing to Europe has been rising lately: 6,669 people reached Italian shores by boat since the beginning of the year, 2.5 times as many as in the same period last year, according to Italian interior ministry data. More than half of all arrivals said their country of origin was Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Guinea, Bangladesh or Sudan.
Others are intercepted and forcibly returned by the country's coast guard, whereupon they are often left at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers without adequate food and water, rights groups say.
An AP investigation in 2019 found that "militias in Libya tortured, extorted and otherwise abused migrants for ransoms in detention centers under the nose of the UN, often in compounds that receive millions in European money, paid to Libya's government to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean."
Over the past years, the European Union has partnered with Libya to prevent migrants from making the journey by sea to Europe. Among other things, it has been training and funding Libya's controversial coast guard, despite a record of abuses, to prevent migrants from reaching European soil.
Meanwhile, distress hotline Alarm Phone reported early Wednesday morning that around 80 people in distress on a rubber off Malta boat contacted them. At the time of publication early Wednesday afternoon, no rescue had been confirmed.
With AFP, AP