As the tragic loss of 368 lives off Lampedusa eight years ago is commemorated, death and distress continues on the Mediterranean, where at least 17,800 people have died since 2013. A newly released documentary reveals the complicity of the EU and member states in widespread abuse of migrants and refugees in Libya. According to a Fact-Finding Mission commissioned by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) violations in the country, where recent waves of arrests have incarcerated thousands of refugees and undocumented people, may amount to crimes against humanity.

On 3 October a memorial ceremony marked the death of 368 people in 2013 off Lampedusa in one of the deadliest shipwrecks on record. Survivors of the shipwreck joined local citizens in honoring the victims. According to UN sources, 17,800 people have been confirmed dead or gone missing in the eight years since the tragedy. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) sets the total number of people dead or missing at the central Mediterranean route in 2021 at 1,118 (as of 2 October). On 1 October the so-called Libyan coast guard recovered the bodies of two people and reported that another 40 people were missing off Libya. On 2 October the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported 70 people missing after departing Libya en route to Europe. A further 49 people in distress on 3 October, adrift in the Maltese SAR zone, are believed to have been rescued but according to the NGO hotline this remains to be confirmed. During the night of 2-3 October more than 600 people in 18 small boats landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, followed by 710 people in 19 boats in the early hours of 4 October. Reception capacity on the island is currently overstretched due to increase in arrivals. Alarm Phone assumes that 70 people rescued by the Italian supply ship Asso29 were also disembarked in Lampedusa. Over 24 hours on 6 October the bodies of 17 people, who had been onboard a boat that capsized on the way to Europe, washed up on the coast between the cities of Zawiya and Sorman in Libya.

Interceptions and returns by the so-called Libyan coast guard have continued with incidents reported by UNHCR Libya of 89 people including three children returned on 2 October, and two groups of 500 and 56 people respectively returned on 3 October. According to IOM Libya 25,823 people, including more than 900 children have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2021 as of October.

Filmmaker Sara Creta has recently released a documentary on the widespread human rights violations and abuse in Libyan detention centres. Creta stated prior to the release: “the European Union and the member states are complicit [in] providing assistance to the Libyan coast guard, to Libyan authorities, to intercept people in international water and bring them back to Libya, when it’s known that they will be returned back to this inhumane and degrading treatment in the detention centers”. EU and member states are providing significant migration-related funding to Libya, with 455 euro paid out under the North of Africa window of the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa alone. A fact finding report commissioned by the OHCHR on Libya was released on 4 October. The film’s debut coincided with the release of the UN Fact-Finding Mission in Libya’s report on abuses against migrants in the country. An spokesperson of the Mission stated: “Migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees are subjected to a litany of abuses at sea, in detention centres and at the hands of traffickers,” and further noted: “Our investigations indicate that violations against migrants are committed on a widespread scale by State and non-State actors, with a high level of organization and with the encouragement of the State – all of which is suggestive of crimes against humanity”. Welcoming the report, the World Organisation Against Torture OMCT and the Libyan Anti-torture Network urged: “the international community to suspend cooperation with Libya pending their full compliance with international human rights and international humanitarian law”.

Since 1 October, between 4,000-5,000 undocumented people including 215 children and over 540 women, at least 30 of whom were pregnant, were rounded in a violent wave of arrests in Western Libya. 4,000 arrests were made within just 48 hours. According to Dax Roque, Libya Director for ECRE member Norwegian Refugee Council: “This is one of the largest migrant arrests we’ve seen in Libya in recent years”. The UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya, Georgette Gagnon said: “Unarmed migrants were harassed in their homes, beaten and shot”. According to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) “one migrant was killed and at least 15 others injured, six seriously” when Libyan security opened fire during the crackdown. Libyan authorities describe the campaign as a security measure against undocumented migration and drug trafficking. However, the interior ministry that lead the crackdown has not confirmed any traffickers or smugglers having been arrested: according to Dax Roque, “Among those arrested are refugees who have already been registered”. A government official speaking under anonymity stated that the government would “deport as many as possible” to their countries of origin. The crackdown “caused a sense of fear and alert among asylum seekers” and led to chaos outside the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Community Day Centre (CDC) in Tripoli. UNHCR was forced to suspend its operations in providing food, financial and hygiene assistance for the most urgent individual cases at the centre.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) calls for immediate release of the thousands of people detained in dire conditions in overcrowded facilities. According to the organization, Libya’s largest Detention Center, Al Mabani, is currently holding more than 4,000 people, four times its official capacity. Numbers in Shara Zawaya Detention Center, designated for women and children only, has increased from just 71 people at the beginning of September to more than 520 today. Among these are more than 175 children, including 47 babies. According to Amnesty International, detainees: “have to sleep with a rotation system, where some people would stand and others would sleep”. Further, the organisation has received videos and testimonies of guards beating detainees with sticks and water pipes, food shortages, and sexual harassment.

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Photo: ECRE

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