Coastguard returns over 4,000 intercepted in Mediterranean Sea to Libya

Desperate refugees face uncertain future in poorly-run, unsafe detention centres

At least 293 women and 224 children are among 4,159 people who have been intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea this year by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard and returned to Libya, according to figures released by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Returnees are often put into indefinite detention where physical violence, deprivation of food and water and other abuses are common.

Three Eritrean refugees, who spent years in detention centres before being released within the last year, told The Irish Times they have given themselves up to smugglers again and are waiting at various points on the Libyan coast in an attempt to reach Europe. All said they had no choice about the day they go to sea as their smugglers, who are usually armed, make that decision.

One man said he had taken part in a protest outside the office of the UN refugee agency in Tripoli earlier this month, where Eritreans called for safe and legal routes to safety and protection for those waiting.

In a statement, the UNHCR said it was “well aware of the challenges and hardships facing asylum seekers and refugees in Libya due to insecurity, weak rule of law, fragile institutions and economic downturn as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and recent conflict ... Despite continuous advocacy, third country solutions are very limited.

“In Libya, out of around 44,000 registered asylum seekers and refugees, less than 2,000 individuals will benefit from either evacuation or resettlement in 2021, in view of available quotas,” the statement said.

The Eritrean protester said this response was the final straw for him.

“It’s so pathetic, this is what makes us decide to cross the sea,” he said. “This is what makes us be hopeless and mentally disordered, inspiring us to die or try for success.”

Brutal dictatorships

Eritreans are fleeing one of the most secretive and brutal dictatorships in the world, where civilians are forced into mandatory military service as soon as they leave school, in a system the UN described in a 2015 report as “slavery-like”.

On Monday, the EU imposed sanctions on the Horn of Africa country, blacklisting Eritrea's National Security Office, which it said "is responsible for serious human rights violations in Eritrea, in particular arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances of persons and torture".

So far this year, at least 73 people have died and 159 gone missing on the central Mediterranean route, according to the IOM, though sea rescue activists and refugee advocates worry that the real figures are much higher.

According to AlarmPhone, an organisation that takes calls from refugees and migrants who experience distress at sea, aroundbout 60 people died on March 18th alone after boat engine caught fire, but most of the deaths went unregistered.

Libya has experienced outbreaks of war, lawlessness and ongoing militia rule since the 2011 revolution when long-ruling dictator Muammar Gadafy was ousted and killed.

The country's latest unity government was sworn in on March 16th, and is led by prime minister Abdul Hamid Ddeibah. It was created by a UN-brokered peace process.