As of this week, the number of people intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard has surpassed the total for the whole of 2020. Once back on Libyan soil, most of these men, women and children are sent to detention centres where they are at grave risk of ill-treatment, exploitation and violence, warns the International Rescue Committee.

This spike in attempted crossings from Libya is partly down to better weather conditions - but also growing humanitarian need due to COVID-induced economic strife and ongoing conflict and persecution in people’s countries of origin.

While the latest ceasefire continues to hold across much of Libya, thousands of people in the country continue to live in desperate conditions.The situation is particularly harrowing for people on the move. The majority of those intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are sent to detention centres, which often fail to provide the most basic services and where ill-treatment and violence have been widely documented. There are currently estimated to be more than 5,000 migrants and refugees trapped in these centres, including women and children who are particularly vulnerable and in need of protection. 
Given the multiple human rights violations faced by people held in these detention centres, the IRC is calling for all detained migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to be immediately released, and for the Libyan authorities to bring an end to the practice of arbitrary detention.  

The activities of the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard continue to result in immeasurable and avoidable suffering. An urgent review is needed to provide clear accounts of how money is being spent and whether it ends up contributing to human rights violations. In the meantime, all EU cooperation with the Libyan authorities on migration issues must be made conditional on commitments to decriminalise migration and to end the arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants.

The IRC echoes this week’s call from David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, for the EU to relaunch its own Search and Rescue operations in the Mediterranean. 

Tom Garofalo, the International Rescue Committee’s Country Director in Libya, said:

“In the space of just six months, more people have been brought back to Libya after risking the treacherous journey to Europe than in the whole of 2020. Tragically, the continued lack of adequate EU-led Search and Rescue operations has resulted in more than 700 people losing their lives or going missing at sea.

“Unfortunately we expect many more people to risk their lives attempting to cross the Med in the summer months, and 2021 is now on course to break the record for the highest number of interceptions and returns by the Libyan Coast Guard since the country descended into crisis over a decade ago. If this continues as expected, there will inevitably be more deaths at sea and more vulnerable people returned to dangerous and inhumane detention centres.

These alarming figures once again highlight the flaws at the heart of the EU’s approach to asylum and migration, which is designed to deter people seeking safety and security from reaching European soil rather than protect them along their journeys. 

Despite the support of the EU, it is clear the Libyan Coast Guard is not capable of protecting the lives of the thousands of people seeking safety by crossing the Mediterranean. It is imperative that the EU launches its own dedicated search and rescue mission to prevent even more needless deaths at sea and uphold people’s fundamental rights.

The absence of legal pathways for migrants and asylum seekers, and the lack of adequate resettlement opportunities for refugees further fuels the smuggling industry, exposing already vulnerable people to horrendous abuse and exploitation.

It’s also critical that world leaders turn their attention to addressing the often dire humanitarian needs that many continue to experience in Libya. Fundamentally, people will continue to feel compelled to risk their lives as long as they are faced with extreme poverty, detention and abuse.”

The IRC’s teams in Libya provide emergency medical attention, water and Core Relief Items such as survival blankets to migrants and refugees who are disembarked at Libyan ports by the Libyan authorities. We also provide life-saving medical activities and basic needs assistance, such as the delivery of hygiene kits and other essential non-food items in detention centres.