A fishing boat throws water bottles to migrants on an overcrowded wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Associated Press
Libya’s Coast Guard said late on Thursday it had picked up 493 migrants on six inflatable boats in six operations in a week in areas northeast and northwest of Tripoli, the capital.
The migrants, including 28 women and five children, are from sub-Saharan, Arab and Asian countries. They were all moved to detention centers run by the UN-backed Government of National Accord, Coast Guard spokesman Ayoub Qassem said.
Libya’s western coast is a main departure point for migrants fleeing war and poverty and hoping for new lives in Europe, though the number of crossings has dropped sharply since July 2017.
The migrants were taken to various detention centers: 173 to Komas, some 120 km (74.6 miles) east of Tripoli; 166 to Tripoli; 50 to Zawiya, and 104 to Zuwarah, both towns that are west of Tripoli, Qassem said.
The death of a Sudanese man from a gunshot wound after a group of migrants fled from guards taking them to a detention centre in Libya is raising fresh, troubling questions about the plight of people caught in the conflict-torn country and the role of the European Union-trained Libyan coast guard.
The 28-year-old man was one of several migrants picked up by the Libyan coast guard in waters that are part of a vast search area the country registered last year under an EU-backed plan to hand off control of Mediterranean Sea rescues to Libya and to stop people setting out for Europe.
His death comes two months after 53 migrants were killed in an airstrike on the Tajoura detention centre in Libya. The centre is still operating despite deep concern about the arbitrary detention in appalling conditions of migrants trying to reach Europe to escape conflict, persecution and poverty.
Some 5,000 men, women and children are being detained in Libya, more than 3,000 in active conflict zones, according to the IOM.
The latest incident happened on Thursday after the coast guard returned a group of migrants to shore at Tripoli’s Abusitta disembarkation area. The man was shot in the stomach after armed men fired into the air when several of a group of 103 migrants under guard tried to escape, according to the International Organization for Migration. An IOM doctor treated the man at the scene but he died two hours later in a local clinic.
“This was a tragedy waiting to happen,” IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said of the latest death. “The use of live bullets against unarmed vulnerable civilians, men, women and children alike, is unacceptable under any circumstances and raises alarms over the safety of migrants and humanitarian staff.” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said “we are deeply saddened and strongly condemn the death” and that the EU wants an investigation launched. “The system of detention centers simply needs to stop,” she added.
The arrival in 2015 of well over 1 million people — most of them Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war — sparked a major crisis in Europe as countries bickered over how best to manage the migrants. While they worked with Turkey on a deal to stop people entering from the east, the Europeans, led by Italy, also began channeling millions of euros into Libya.
The effort was ramped up in 2017 even though the EU itself acknowledges that 4,000 to 7,000 people were detained in 24 centers run by Libya’s Department for Combatting Illegal Migration and that even more were being kept off the grid.
“Armed groups hold migrants in an unknown number of unofficial detention centers across the country. Migrants and refugees do not undergo any kind of formal registration and don’t have access to legal process before and while being in detention,” notes an EU action plan drawn up to help manage migrant flows through Libya.
“Conditions in detention are generally inhumane: severely overcrowded, without adequate access to toilets or washing facilities, food, or clean water. In several detention centers, migrants are held in large numbers in a single room without sufficient space to lie down.” At least 46 million euros ($51 million) were earmarked for the Libyan coast guard. Through its flagship anti-smuggling naval effort Operation Sophia — currently more flag than ship, since Italy’s anti-migrant government withdrew permission for naval vessels to take part — the EU has trained coast guard personnel.