Libyan coastguard said it intercepted and rescued 15,000 migrants in the Mediterranean in 2018

Over 15,000 migrants have been intercepted or rescued in the Mediterranean in 2018, said a spokesperson for the Libyan coastguard on 20 December 2018. The top three nationalities rescued or intercepted at sea in 2018 by the Libyan coastguard include Sudanese, Nigerians and Eritreans, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported in its monthly updates on Libya. About 7-in-10 of those are men and 1-in-10 are children.  

The Libyan coastguard’s capacity and mandate to intercept those at sea increased since an agreement was reached between Italy and Libya in December 2017, which later included returning those rescued in international waters to Libya. The Libyan coastguard extended its search and rescue zone to 94 nautical miles, reaching international waters, and told UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) that majority of the distress calls they received “were coming through Italy.”

Between January 2017 to September 2018, 29,000 migrants have been picked up by the Libyan coastguard, UNSMIL reported in its newly-published report, ‘Desperate and Dangerous: Report on the human rights situation of migrants and refugees in Libya’ on 18 December 2018.

The report charts the journey of migrants through Libya and across the Mediterranean. “From the moment they step onto Libyan soil, they become vulnerable to unlawful killings, torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and unlawful deprivation of liberty, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, slavery and forced labour, extortion and exploitation by both State and non-State actors,” it said. Some asylum seekers end up in detention centres around the country, formally under the control of the Interior Ministry, but some are still controlled by armed groups.

UNSMIL said an estimated 6,800 migrants and refugees are being detained in western Libya as of September 2018. It added that hundreds of others are held for non-migration related activities, such as theft, drug-related offences, sex work, alcohol consumption and terrorism, often without charge or trial for prolonged periods.

In detention centres, conditions are reportedly dismal, “generally inhuman, fall far short of international standards and, in some cases, may amount to torture,” said the UNSMIL report. It has “observed severe overcrowding, lack of proper ventilation and lighting, inadequate access to washing facilities and latrines, constant confinement, denial of contact with the outside world, and malnutrition.” In October 2018, the conditions propelled a 28-year-old Somali man to set himself on fire in a detention centre in Tripoli.

Additionally, the report found that “female detainees are routinely subjected to strip searches by or under the gaze of male guards.” A detainee said she was raped an average of six times every night.  

“Despite the overwhelming evidence of human rights violations and abuses, Libyan authorities have thus far appeared largely unable or unwilling to put an end to violations and abuses committed against migrants and refugees,” the report added.

As the horrors of detention in Libya are reported around the world, groups are calling for the rescue and release of irregular migrants stuck there. According to Xinhua news agency, IOM has assisted the return of 16,000 migrants to their home countries in 2018. The IOM said the largest group returned from Libya are from Nigeria, followed by Mali and Niger.

TMP – 13/01/2019

Photo caption: Migrants sit on mattresses laid on the floor at a detention centre, located on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya.

Photo credit: UNICEF/Alessio Romenzi