Distressing images have emerged online of the bodies of young children washed up on a Libyan beach as the EU’s role in the migrant crisis comes under renewed pressure.
Oscar Camps, founder of the NGO Open Arms, was among those to share the photos taken near to Zuwara, a city in western Libya 60 kilometres from the Tunisian border.
“I am still in shock from the horror of the situation, young children and women who only had dreams and ambitions to live,” he said.
In Italy, where migrants who cross the Mediterranean often first arrive, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the "images of bodies of babies and toddlers washed up on a beach in Libya are unacceptable".
The UN’s human rights agency has urged the EU and Libyan government to reform their migrant rescue policies.
According to a new UN report, EU member states have significantly reduced search and rescue operations and sought to offload responsibility to the Libyan coastguard.
But that happened without sufficient consideration for the human rights and protection of migrants, who are at risk of serious abuses if returned to Libyan territory.
The report by the UN Human Rights Office suggested that the absence of human rights protections was "not a tragic anomaly, but rather a consequence of concrete policy decisions and practices by the Libyan authorities, the European Union member states and institutions, and other actors".
“The real tragedy is that so much of the suffering and death along the central Mediterranean route is preventable,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s top human rights official.
“Every year, people drown because help comes too late, or never comes at all. Those who are rescued are sometimes forced to wait for days or weeks to be safely disembarked or, as has increasingly been the case, are returned to Libya which, as has been stressed on countless occasions, is not a safe harbour due to the cycle of violence,” she said.
In 2020, the Libyan coastguard returned at least 10,352 migrants to Libya after they were intercepted at sea. In 2019 the number was 8,403.
“We can all agree that no one should feel compelled to risk their lives, or those of their families, on unseaworthy boats in search of safety and dignity,” Ms Bachelet said. “But the answer cannot be simply preventing departures from Libya or making the journeys more desperate and dangerous.”
At least 632 migrants have died in 2021 after attempting to cross into Europe via the central Mediterranean.