Some 830 migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya have been returned since mid-last week, including over 600 on Friday and Saturday, according to the IOM and Libya's navy. Eleven migrants reportedly drowned off Libya on Sunday. Separately, UNICEF warned of the dire situation of tens of thousands of migrant and refugee children in Libya.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 600 migrants who tried to reach Europe by boat were returned to Libya by Libyan naval forces on Friday (April 30) and Saturday (May 1).
Citing a statement by Libya's navy, news agency AFP reported that the returnees consisted of three groups that were intercepted at sea by Libyan coast guard and navy officials. Two groups were returned on Friday and one on Saturday.
The people were mostly citizens from sub-Saharan African countries, the statement said. "They were brought to a naval base in the capital Tripoli ahead of handing them over to an anti-immigration squad run by the interior ministry," AFP reported.
According to the navy, a total of 466 people were rescued or intercepted and returned on Friday: A first group of 334 migrants, who were on board four inflatable boats, and another group of 132 people. In its latest update, IOM spoke of 439 migrants who were returned on Friday.
Both the navy and the IOM say that 172 people were returned on Saturday. "The navy did not say if the boats were sinking or had technical problems," AFP reported. Together with the 207 migrants returned on last Wednesday and Thursday, 818 migrants were returned in a 4-day period, among them 119 women and 58 children, according to the IOM.
The IOM, UN refugee agency UNHCR and other organizations have repeatedly condemned the practice of intercepting and returning migrants to Libya since the situation in the country is chaotic, and conditions in detention centers are poor. On Saturday (May 1), the IOM repeated its concerns: "Our teams provided emergency assistance to more than 600 migrants intercepted over the past 48 hours. We reiterate that Libya is not a safe port."
According to the IOM, some 7,000 migrants have been intercepted or rescued and returned to Libya so far this year.
11 migrants drown off Libya
Separately, at least 11 Europe-bound migrants reportedly drowned on Sunday (May 2) when a rubber dinghy carrying two dozen people capsized off Libya. According to the IOM, the shipwreck took place off the coast near the northwestern Libyan city of Zawya. The coast guard reportedly rescued 12 passengers.
Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the survivors were brought back to Libya and detained upon stepping ashore. "We have unfortunately not been able to see or speak with them yet," Msehli told InfoMigrants. Those one dozen people brought the total number of returned migrants to Libya between April 28 and May 2 to 830.
The deadly shipwreck was the latest in the central Mediterranean, which is considered to be one of the deadliest and most dangerous migration routes in the world. According to the IOM, at least 490 people have died during the attempt to reach European shores via the central Mediterranean between January 1 and May 3 this year. Most of them start their crossings in Libya.
Last month, 130 migrants likely perished in what IOM and UNHCR called the "largest loss of life recorded" in the central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year. According to UN child welfare agency UNICEF, more than 8,600 migrants have arrived in European ports via the central Mediterranean so far this year, one in five are children.
On Saturday, at least 236 people saved from the Mediterranean Sea by a private rescue vessel, Ocean Viking, disembarked in the Sicilian port of Augusta. Another charity vessel, the Sea-Watch 4, is still waiting for an offer of safe harbor for the more than 450 migrants it picked up in the central Mediterranean.
Children at risk in Libya
According to UNICEF, more than 66,000 underage refugees and migrants are currently in war-torn Libya. In a statement published online on Friday (April 30), UNICEF said nearly 1,100 of them live in overcrowded detention centers in precarious conditions.
"Those in detention are cut off from clean water, electricity, education, health care and adequate sanitation facilities. Violence and exploitation are rampant," the statement read. UNICEF urged the Libyan authorities to release "all children and to put an end to immigration detention."
Intercepted and returned to Libya
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.
Over the past years, the European Union has partnered with Libya to prevent migrants from making the journey by sea to Europe. Despite a record of abuses, Italy has been training and equipping Libya's controversial coast guard, a practice the EU member state has come under fire from aid groups for.
According to a joint statement by IOM and UNHCR from April 23, those intercepted and returned to Libya face "arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, exploitation and violence, conditions that push them to take risky journeys especially sea crossings."
Last week, a report compiled by a group of European media outlets stated that EU border agency Frontex plays a central role in ensuring that migrants are intercepted by Libya's coast guard and brought back there. It was the latest in a series of accusations against Frontex over its handling of migrants in the Mediterranean.
With AFP, AP, dpa