Migrant numbers in Libya’s official detention centres have doubled over the last three months after a crackdown on arrivals in Europe, the UN’s migration agency has said.
The number of people detained in conditions that leave them susceptible widespread human rights abuses has surged from 5,500 to 9,300, the International Organisation for Migration said this week. This doesn’t account for the many more held at unofficial and militia-ran centres where the likelihood of abuses is far higher.
The European Union has empowered Libya’s coastguard, better equipping them to intercept migrant boats and return them to the unstable North Africa country. The coastguard, which in reality is a mix of official boats and government-sanctioned militias, has itself been accused of abusing migrants.
“Less people travelling to Europe or taking boats does not mean that there are less migrants. It means the opposite. They are stranded,” said Othmann Belbeisi, the IOM’s chief of mission in Libya. He added that smuggling networks were becoming stronger and more organised.
The IOM believes there are 662,000 migrants in Libya this year, up some 40,000 from 2017, 10 per cent of who are minors.
"Working with the Libyan coastguard, we see the good and the bad. We need to support those who are doing a good job and we need to be prosecuting anyone who commits human rights violations," Mr Belbeisi added in comments the Guardian.
His comments came amid a furore between the Libyan coastguard and the Spanish NGO and rescue group Proactiva Open Arms over the death of two migrants. The NGO accused Libya’s coastguard of abandoning three people in the Mediterranean Sea, including a woman and a toddler who died, after they intercepted 160 Europe-bound migrants off Libya’s shores.
Proactiva said it found a woman alive and a toddler and another person dead in the remains of a migrant ship drifting 80 nautical miles from Libya’s coast. The group’s head, Oscar Camps, said the blame lay with the Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini and his hardline approach to migration.
Libyan coastguard spokesman Ayoub Gassim lashed back and said: “All disasters happening in the sea are caused by human traffickers who are only interested in profit and the presence of such irresponsible, non-governmental groups in the region.”
Earlier this week, eight migrants, mostly children, suffocated to death as they were trapped in a refrigerator truck carrying around 100 people in the town of Zuwara, 100 kilometres west of Tripoli.
"We don't have enough support or equipment, but continue to find holding rooms for migrants pre-departure. There has definitely been an increase in (migrant) activity in the area. When the migrants are found they are then processed and sent to detention centres," Colonel Aymed Absa, the commander of Zuwara's security directorate, told The National.
Overall, the number of migrants arriving in Europe by sea this year totals 50,872, less than half the 109,746 who came in by mid-July last year, the IOM said. In the same time period in 2016, 241,859 migrants came to Europe.
Off the north coast of Cyprus late Wednesday evening, 19 migrants drowned and as many as 30 were missing after their boat sank, local security forces said.
The boat was carrying 150 people, reportedly Syrians, when it went down off the coast of the Turkish Cypriot-controlled portion of the island, which is only recognised by Ankara.
The boat was carrying 150 people when a joint operation by Turkish Cypriot and Turkish coastguards was launched after it began to sink off the village of Gialousa (Yeni Erenkoy in Turkish) on the panhandle Karpas peninsula.
Nine drowned and more are feared dead. As many as 30 people were missing, Turkish Cypriot security forces (GKK) said.
The Turkish coastguard said that the accident took place 30 kilometres off the shore of northern Cyprus. It said that 103 survivors had been rescued.
One was taken by helicopter to Cyprus in grave medical condition, the GKK said.
The others were taken by boats to the port of Tasucu in Turkey's southern Mersin region, Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency said.
The dead were taken to Tasucu for autopsies. One of the survivors was a three-year-old child, while a woman who drowned was pregnant, the Hurriyet newspaper said.
Search efforts were underway to recover the missing, with commercial vessels also taking part, according to reports.
Turkey's DHA news agency said those on board the vessel were Syrians seeking to go to Europe but this had yet to be confirmed.