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Libyan coastguard intercepts hundreds of refugees fleeing the country

International Organisation for Migration says 317 people have been locked away in al-Masser detention centre

HUNDREDS of refugees attempting to flee Libya in boats across the Mediterranean were intercepted and returned to a detention centre in the war-torn country by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard at the weekend.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported yesterday that at least five boats carrying close to 400 people set out from Libya on Saturday. The Libyan coastguard seized one of the boats that evening, while the other four were returned to the main port in the country’s besieged capital city of Tripoli late on Sunday.

IOM spokeswoman Safa Msehli told the Star today that all the 317 people detained at the weekend had been locked away in the al-Nasser detention centre in Zawya, north-west Libya.

“Close to 4,000 people have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard this year and returned to Libya,” Ms Msehli said.

“A lot of these people have been taken to unofficial detention centres which humanitarian aid workers don’t have access to.

“The IOM has been calling on the European Union for the establishment of a safe, quick and alternative disembarkation mechanism.

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

“NGO rescuers have saved countless lives and prevented countless tragedies in the past years, especially since states have decreased their capacity.

“It is absolutely vital to acknowledge their role and to lift any restrictions on their work.”

Alarm Phone, an activist network that operates a hotline for people crossing the Mediterranean, was contacted by several boats in distress at the weekend.

“Hundreds of people were intercepted by Europe’s ally, the Libyan authorities, and returned to war,” the activists said this morning.

“We don’t know if two boats that reached out to us are among them.”

Alarm Phone lost contact with another group of about 78 refugees in Maltese waters today.

“[Armed Forces Malta] told us they are monitoring the boat from the sky but they do not consider the boat in distress,” reads one of the charity’s tweets from Sunday evening.

“They must organise a rescue operation with rescue vessels, not watch them from above!
 
“At 23:54 CEST they were 35 [nautical miles] south of Malta. [Armed Forces Malta] again just hung up the phone on us without giving any information. The people need to be brought to safety.”

The activists were contacted by another group on Monday morning by a boat in distress in Libyan waters with about 91 people on board.

Their fate remained unclear at the time this story was published.

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