The International Rescue Committee reveals that, over the past six months, close to 500* children have been intercepted at sea and brought back to Libya after trying to reach safety in Europe. 

Between March and September 2020, more than 5,800 people were intercepted while risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea**. All, including children and pregnant women, have been brought back to Libya’s overcrowded, unsanitary detention centres. 

IRC staff have reported an alarming increase in the number of detainees in recent weeks. In one detention centre in Tripoli, the number of detainees increased from 23 to over 1,000 in the last two weeks of September - despite currently having the capacity to host and feed only 150 people per day. 

In January 2020, warring parties committed in Berlin to begin the process of ending arbitrary detention and gradually closing these detention centres. At a follow up conference this week, the UN Secretary-General noted that commitments had not been met and called for refugees and migrants “held in detention in inhumane conditions [to] be released and provided with safe shelter." 

Yesterday, Home Affairs ministers had a chance to address these issues at a JHA meeting which focused on cooperating with third countries on migration. Yet, by choosing to shine a spotlight on preventing people reaching Europe, they have again missed an important opportunity to tackle the chronic protection issues that exist in Libya itself. 

It’s essential that in its cooperation with third countries, the EU takes responsibility for the fate of vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers intercepted while trying to reach Europe – including the 500 children sent to in Libyan detention centres since March. 

It’s also crucial that EU Member States work closely with third countries to improve their legal frameworks and enhance the protection of migrants and refugees along migration routes, pushing them to fully comply with international human rights standards, including the end of arbitrary detention.  

Tom Garofalo, Country Director for the IRC in Libya, said: 

“When people are brought back to Libya from sea they are in desperate need of support. Many have been drifting for days and are seriously dehydrated. They have burns on their bodies from the sun and the fuel, and many witness the deaths of their fellow passengers. For children, this is deeply distressing and when they are brought back they are in need not only of medical care to treat their wounds, but also of psychological support to help them cope with what they have seen and experienced. 

Survivors have experienced what the rest of us can only imagine. Many have been raped, tortured, beaten, detained and further abused - sometimes multiple times. And it is these factors, among many more, that drive them to attempt to reach Europe. To send people already in such a fragile state to overcrowded, unsanitary detention centres is deplorable at the best of times, but during a pandemic - where social distancing and basic hygiene practices are so vital - it is even more reprehensible. This practice needs to be brought to an end immediately, and efforts must be made to ensure that both those newly detained and those who have been in detention for months - if not years - are provided not only with somewhere safe to live but also with the support they need to rebuild their lives.”  

Imogen Sudbery, IRC’s Director of Policy and Advocacy for Europe, added: 

“The EU’s broken migration and asylum system has exacerbated the unimaginable suffering experienced by refugees and migrants in Libya. The new Pact is an opportunity to change this. Unfortunately, while there are some steps forward, the proposals we’ve seen so far seem to point to a continuation of policies that have caused harm – including a form of cooperation with third countries that focuses on stopping people reaching Europe above guaranteeing essential protections for people on the move. 

It’s absolutely essential that the EU and broader international community cooperate with third countries such as Libya to improve their legal frameworks and better ensure the protection of migrants and refugees, prioritising the end of arbitrary detention. The current reality of disembarkation does not match the EU’s recognition that Libya is not a safe country. This must change. An EU-funded search and rescue operation to save lives at sea must be urgently deployed. 

Yesterday’s JHA meeting was a chance to build on the Berlin process, whose commitments have been reaffirmed by the follow-up conference on Libya held earlier this week. It’s time to throw a lifeline to people trapped in crisis in Libya, particularly children, who simply can’t wait any longer for the EU’s help and support.” 

The IRC is calling for an immediate end to arbitrary detention and for those brought back from sea to receive all necessary health care and emotional support. Referrals must also be made for those who need further assistance or specialized services. Additionally, COVID testing capacity across the country must be scaled-up and access to health and protection services for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must be expanded so that they can receive the care they need - something even more vital during the pandemic. 


*The IRC supported a total of 465 children who were intercepted at sea and brought back to Libya between March and September 2020. This data was collected by the IRC’s health and protection teams, who are permitted to provide only emergency medical care and a few basic supplies to those who are returned, before they are sent to detention centres. 

** Since March 1, when the IRC began responding at Libya’s disembarkation points, 55 boats have been brought back from sea and 5,866 people - including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers - have been disembarked.

Of the 5,866 people that the IRC has supported at the disembarkation points, 2,795 were identified as people of concern. Of these, 75% were from North Sudan, 11% from Somalia, 5% from Eritrea, 5% from South Sudan and 4% from Darfur.