The EU is set to deliver new ships to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, the body notorious for intercepting and returning more than 32,000 people to detention in 2021. Meanwhile, hundreds of detainees in Tripoli have launched a hunger strike to protest abuse including burns, beatings, rape, forced labour, deprivation of water and food. As 125 organisations joined forces on 6 January to remember those who have gone missing or dead while trying to reach Europe, organisations active in Malta drew attention to the particularly deadly Mediterranean route. Cyprus is emphasising returns as the remedy to ongoing reception difficulties. The latest hearing in a case of three youths charged with hijacking offenses for refusing disembarkation in Libya has taken place in Malta.

According to a spokesperson from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG-NEAR), the EU will deliver three new “search-and-rescue” vessels as well as two refurbished patrol boats to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. The coast guard intercepted and returned more than 32,000 people to Libya in 2021, many of whom according to Amnesty International: “ended up in horrific detention centres rife with torture, while countless others were forcibly disappeared”. The UN Human Rights Council, Pope Francis, NGOs and Libya’s human rights commission have all raised strong concern over the situation for people detained in Libya. On 4 February, hundreds of detainees, including children, in the Ain Zara centre located to the south of Tripoli begun a hunger strike protesting conditions in the overcrowded facility. There, more than 300 people are held in a single cell and ill-treatment such as burns, beatings, rape, forced labour, and deprivation of water and food is rife. The hunger strikers were among almost 1,000 people detained in January after months of protests for evacuation out of Libya in front of a now-closed UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) centre. Two former guards of another detention centre, the notorious Zouara prison, have been sentenced to 20 years in prison by the court in Palermo, Sicily. The pair were convicted on charges including torture and extortion. The already unstable situation in Libya appears set to deteriorate further after the indefinite postponement of planned elections in December. On 7 February the parliament announced it will name a new prime minister to head the transitional government. However, current prime minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah has stated “he will ignore any vote to replace him”. Such a situation will potentially leave the country with two parallel administrations.

On 6 February, the Tunisian navy intercepted and returned 163 people including children, off the country’s east coast, allegedly on their way to Italy. Departures from the north African nation reportedly surged in 2021, with almost 55,000 people reaching Italy in the first 10 months of the year compared to under 30,000 the previous year. According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, the country’s coast guard intercepted 19,500 people seeking to cross over the first three quarters of 2021

Also on 6 February, organisations across Europe marked a “Global Day of Struggle against Deaths at Borders”. 38 local organisations came together in Malta protesting the ongoing loss of life at the Mediterranean, stating “We will never forget those who died or disappeared”… “They are Humans, not Numbers”. UNHCR statistics reveal that 1,971 human beings died or disappeared across the Mediterranean in 2021, and at least 23,000 over the past decade. The number of people who died or went missing on the central Mediterranean route alone was 1,553 in 2021 and 119 so far this year as of 5 February according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Cyprus’ interior minister insists that returns are the answer to ongoing reception challenges on the small island. Authorities have blamed severe overcrowding in facilities such as the Pournara reception camp –recently ravaged by violence – on an increase in arrivals. Some 13,235 new asylum applications were filed last year. UNHCR last month urged Cyprus to do more to safeguard the rights of children in the centres. While the UN agency says reception challenges are best addressed by fast and fair asylum procedures, interior minister Nicos Nouris has told local media that returns of asylum seekers with negative decisions are key.

More than 20,000 asylum cases were pending at the end of 2021: out of 16,000 applications processed that year, nearly 13,000 were rejected. On 1 February, Nouris announced that the “Standard Operation Procedures for Returns” have been finalised and will be “continuously tested” during voluntary and forced returns in the coming months. According to the minister, EU and Frontex (the European border and coast guard agency) have assisted in streamlining return procedures. A Memorandum of Understanding on actions to control migrant movements to Cyprus and EU assistance in that regard is reportedly expected to be signed soon.

On 3 and 8 February, Malta held the latest hearing of the El Hiblu 3, a high-profile case concerning three youths rescued at sea in 2019. Upon realising that the vessel that rescued them, the El Hilblu, was sailing for Libya rather than Malta the 108 survivors on board refused to disembark and were taken to Malta. According to Amnesty International, prosecutors have yet to decide on the specific charges of the three youths accused of hijacking the vessel with alleged crimes ranging “from engaging in acts of terrorism, violence against people, detaining and threatening other people”.  NGOs have since been campaigning for justice for the young men, who they say “were just trying to calm people who were panicking at the sight of Libyan coasts”. At the latest hearing, witnesses confirmed this, saying that rather than hijacking the vessel the three youths were acting as translators and keeping people calm: “It was thanks to them that we calmed down and no one got hurt,” stated one of the witnesses.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.