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‘It is absolutely tragic that people have died on Europe’s doorsteps’

IOM spokeswoman SAFA MSEHLI speaks Ben Cowles following a week of refugee tragedies in Libya and the Mediterranean and the importance of NGO rescuers

LIBYA is a country in disarray, a war zone battled over by two opposing proxy factions, jihadists, strongmen and human traffickers.

In the last week, 30 migrants were gunned down in a smuggling warehouse in an apparent revenge attack for the killing of a human trafficker, and at least nine refugee boats in distress in the Mediterranean contacted the activist network Alarm Phone.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) — an inter-governmental institution affiliated to the United Nations — estimates the Libyan Coastguard has so far this year returned close to 4,000 people to the ravaged country.

Over the course of one weekend towards the end of May, the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard intercepted five boats carrying over 300 people as they attempted to flee across the Mediterranean.

All 317 people the coastguards picked up were sent to the al-Nasser detention centre in Zawya, north-west Libya, IOM spokeswoman Safa Msehli says.

“What is major of concern to us is that a lot of people have been taken to unofficial centres, to which humanitarian aid workers don’t have access.

“We’ve reported many disappearances from these centres. There are hundreds of people who have been returned from the sea and their fates remain unknown.

“We’ve called on the Libyan government for clarification as to their fates. And we’ve asked for people not to be returned to Libya.

“But very little action seems to have taken place, which is tragic because people are being returned to an active conflict, to poverty, enforced disappearances, abuse and arbitrary detention.”

Slavery, torture, rape and other abuses have all been documented inside the country’s official and unofficial detention centres.

According to leaked documents revealed earlier this year, the European Union is also concerned with the horrendous conditions inside the country’s detention centres.

A document dated September 4 2019 from the Presidency of the Council of the European Union to member state delegates says: “The [Libyan] government has continued to arbitrarily detain migrants, many of whom are in a vulnerable position.

“The centres suffer from overcrowding and the conditions are poor. In particular, there are difficulties in relation to sanitary facilities and food and water supply,” the document states.

It continues: “Severe human rights violations have been widely reported. Some of the detention centres are alleged of having links to human trafficking. There is no proper registration system for migrants.”

Despite these fears, the EU continues to support and train the Libyan Coastguard.

Following the pushback of 317 people last month, the IOM reiterated its calls on EU member states to establish a safe, quick and alternative mechanism for refugees trying to reach its shores.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Italy and Malta have closed their ports to foreign refugee rescue ships, claiming that their shores could not be considered a place of safety.

Though, as many of the rescue organisations have pointed out, Italy and Malta’s ports are still open to foreign merchant vessels.

From 2015 to 2019 the European Union was directly involved in refugee rescue in the Mediterranean. It set up a military mission, later known as Operation Sophia, in 2015 as a response to the so-called “refugee crisis.”

Though Operation Sophia’s main goal was to target human traffickers, it’s thought to have rescued tens of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean.

The mission was scuppered in May last year when Italy’s then far-right-populist coalition government insisted that it was encouraging refugees to cross the Mediterranean — a fact disproved by several studies.

The EU pulled all of Operation Sophia’s naval assets from the sea last year and then relaunched the entire thing in March, renaming it Operation Irini and defining its mission as enforcing the UN’s arms embargo on Libya.

In another leaked document — this time from the European External Action Service dated February 12, 2020 — the EU appears keen to assuage concerns that its ships will act as a “pull factor” and lead to an increase of irregular migrants.

The document states: “Naval assets can be deployed in the areas most relevant to the implementation of the arms embargo, in the eastern part of the area of operation or at least 100km off the Libyan coast, where chances to conduct rescue operations are lower.”

Nobody, Msehli says, should be returned to Libya or left adrift in the Mediterranean.

“European Mediterranean states should take equal responsibility in providing a port of safety to people who are rescued or intercepted at sea.

“And then, obviously, there should be European solidarity for a relocation agreement. People who are seeking international protection and those who need other forms of protection or assistance should also be provided with support.

“It is extremely worrying to hear reports about delays in rescues. On the Easter weekend, a delay in rescue for four days cost the lives of 12 people.

“These were absolutely avoidable deaths, and we remind states of their obligations under international maritime law to respond to the distress calls and rescue people who are in distress, or floating in unseaworthy vessels.

“It is absolutely tragic that people have died on Europe’s doorsteps.”

Malta has treated refugees particularly egregiously since the pandemic.

It organised the pushback of at least one refugee boat to Libya (after its armed forces allegedly sabotaged its engine and terrified those on board), forced another to continue onto Italian waters and has since began holding rescued refugees offshore on tourist boats.

“In March, IOM had reported a case where people were returned to Libya by the Libyan coastguard from Maltese waters.

“Again, people rescued at sea, or found in distress at sea cannot be taken to unsafe ports.

“The IOM, the UN and even the European Union have publicly said that Libya is not a safe port. So any reports of people being taken or pushed back to Libya are obviously of great concern.

“States are obliged under international maritime law to provide a safe port to people rescued at sea and also to respond to distress calls.”

The central Mediterranean is one of the busiest maritime routes in the world. It is also one of the (if not the) most dangerous migration journeys in the world.

The IOM has recorded over 20,000 deaths in the central Mediterranean route since 2014, Msehli says.

“It's important to remember that the over 20,000 deaths are not just numbers. These are people. And one death is absolutely one too many.

“These are people who have families. These are people who have stories, who faced hardship, abuse in detention systems in Libya and at the hands of traffickers and smugglers.

“Currently there is very little, if any, search-and-rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean due to Covid-19 measures and due to a decrease in state-led search and rescue capacity in the past years.

“NGOs are facing restrictions, due to Covid-19. It’s very worrying that there’s very little search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean, where the risk of invisible shipwrecks and the risk of people going missing, away from the eyes of the international community, are much higher.

“It is a matter of grave importance. And we must not forget that these people are taking dangerous journeys right now in the absence of a life-saving presence.

“NGOs have saved countless lives and prevented countless tragedies in the past years, especially since states have decreased their search-and-rescue capacity.

“They have played a massive role in saving lives and it is absolutely vital to acknowledge their role and to lift any restrictions on their work.”

Safa Msehli is a spokeswoman for the International Organisation for Migration.

Ben Cowles is the Star's web editor. You can read more of his coverage on the refugee crisis, NGO rescuers and Europe’s war on them on his blog civilfleet.com. You can find him on Twitter via: @Cowlesz.

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