Tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea continues, with more that 170 people dead or missing in two separate shipwrecks last weekend. A further 144 people that were ‘rescued’ by a cargo vessel were returned to inhumane conditions in Libya.  Meanwhile, naval anti- smuggling operation Sophia remains at risk due to a lack of EU unity regarding the extension of its mandate.

On January 17, at least 53 refugees and migrants died in the Alboran Sea in the western Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe. One survivor have reportedly been rescued by a passing fishing boat after having been stranded for more than 24 hours at sea. The following day, three men were rescued 50 miles off Libya by an Italian Navy helicopter and brought to Lampedusa, Italy. Those rescued confirmed that approximately 117 people went missing at sea before rescue services could reach them, including a pregnant woman and two children.

On January 20 the cargo ship Lady Sham ‘rescued’ refugees and migrants from a third vessel off the coast of Tripoli, which was apprehended by the Libyan Coastguard and returned to Libya. The NGO Alarm Phone, who had received notice from the vessel when it got into trouble, remained in contact with those being returned, who reported that on realising that they were going back to Libya people began crying, screaming, and threatening suicide. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said that children were among those disembarked in Libya; a 15 year old boy died following disembarkation despite MSF’s response.

In a report released this week titled “No Escape from Hell”, Human Rights Watch document extreme abuses in Libyan detention centres, including beatings, torture and collective punishment, as well as details of EU complicity, humanitarian assistance, and evacuation and repatriation. Charlie Yaxley, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said “The automatic use of detention for rescued refugees and migrants, the extremely volatile situation with regards to the outbreaks of violence and, together, with the widespread reports of human rights violations, they play just a part of why we consider Libya to be, to have no safe port for docking rescued passengers at the moment.”

Dispute over the EU’s naval operation Sophia, which is tasked to combat trafficking and smuggling in the Mediterranean and rescued some 50,000 refugees and migrants since 2015, continues. With the mandate of the operation due to expire in March, EU commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos commented “If Italy decides, it is the country in command of operation Sophia, to stop it – it is up to Italy to make this decision”. The statement follows threats from Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to end the operation if rules are not changed as to how rescued people are distributed.

Germany has also pushed for a solution to the political disputes over distribution, saying that they have been sidelined by Italian commanders; “For three quarters of a year, the Italian command has been sending our navy to the most remote areas of the Mediterranean where there are no smuggling routes and no migrant flows so that the navy has not had any sensible role for months”.

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Photo: (CC) Tauralbus, October 2010

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