Another deadly tragedy has taken place on the Mediterranean where interceptions and returns to unsafe Libya continue. The European Commission releases more funding for the so-called Libyan coast guard, which new information has confirmed to be cooperating closing with Frontex. Meanwhile, the situation in Libya for people on the move is further deteriorating with new killings of detainees.

The death toll on the Mediterranean route continues to rise. At least 15 lives were lost after a boat capsized off the coast of western Libya on 11 October. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone reports that Libyan authorities waited ten hours to intervene after being alerted to the boat in distress. The hotline further on 13 October reported 97 people in distress off Tunisia as water entered their boat and urged authorities to launch a rescue operation. The NGO vessel operated by the ResQ-People Saving People project, saved 59 people on 10 October onboard a small wooden boat that had departed from the Libyan city of Zuara. On the same day 77 people including 19 children rescued by the Italian coast guard disembarked in the port of Crotone and another 20 people intercepted by the coast guard off Lampedusa disembarked on the island. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 1,163 people have died or gone missing on the central Mediterranean route in 2021 as of 9 October. Meanwhile, interception and return to Libya continues. A total of 305 people including 90 survivors of the deadly shipwreck on 11 October were reported returned to Libya on 11 and 12 October. The UN Agency reports that 26,314 people, including 299 children, have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2021 up until 9 October.

The European Commission is set to increase its funding to the so-called Libyan coast guard with 15 million euro allocated to deliver new “P150 class” patrol boats. The notorious coast guard is returning people to detention under conditions recently classified by the UN as amounting to “possible crimes against humanity”. Reportedly, large sums of EU funding sent to Libya have been diverted to militias and traffickers exploiting and abusing people on the move. A freedom of information request has confirmed the exchange of WhatsApp messages between Frontex and units from the so-called Libyan coast guard. Allegations were first made early this year of Frontex supplying coordinates and photos of refugee boats – gathered via aerial reconnaissance – which are then used by the Libyans to locate and return boats. The head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, in March denied any direct cooperation between his agency and the so-called Libyan coast guard. Commenting on the allegations in April, Nora Markard, professor for international public law and international human rights law at the University of Münster, said “this form of direct contact is a clear violation of European law”. After the redacted messages released this week confirmed close cooperation between Frontex and Libyan officers, Leggeri admitted to the communication, saying: “In some cases, if Libya is competent legally speaking because the distress is in the Libyan search and rescue zone, we share this information with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center located in Tripoli, which by the way, was funded by the EU”. Nonetheless the agency defends the practice, claiming it is in line with EU obligations under maritime law, despite a 2012 European Court of Human Rights case proscribing EU involvement in returns to Libya.

A Naples court has also ruled the return of people rescued at sea to Libya a crime. The captain of the commercial vessel Asso28 has been sentenced to one year of imprisonment for returning 101 people including pregnant women and several children to Tripoli in 2018. According to Amnesty International researcher, Matteo de Bellis: “This is first ruling on privatized pushbacks to Libya. Message for shipmasters and governments: do not disembark refugees and migrants in Libya or transfer to Libyan coastguard”.

Libyan authorities are carrying out an unprecedented violent crackdown on undocumented people with thousands detained. Following the killing of one person and injuring of another 15 others by security forces in early October the death-toll continues to raise. IOM has condemned the killing of six people and the injuring of at least 24 others on 8 October when armed guards opened fire following a riot and an attempted escape at the Al-Mabani detention centre in Tripoli. A spokesperson from the UN migration agency described the horrific scenes: “Some of our staff who witnessed this incident describe injured migrants in a pool of blood lying on the ground. We are devastated by this tragic loss of life”. The chaos and escape of some 2,000 people was triggered by overcrowding in the Mabani dentention centre that held 3,400 people including 144 children at the time of the incident. Security forces later in the day detained more than 900 people many believed to be among those who had escaped the notorious detention facility. According to IOM: “There are nearly 10,000 men, women and children trapped in grim conditions in official detention facilities which have limited and often restricted access for humanitarian workers”. UNHCR is “deeply distressed to learn of the death of a 25 year-old male Sudanese asylum seeker in Tripoli” on 12 October. According to the agency the man was a former detainee of the Al Mabani detention centre and: “had been beaten and shot before being transported to one city hospital by a group of masked armed men”. Thousands of people desperate to flee Libya have been protesting outside UNHCR’s Community Day Center, in the Serraj district of Tripoli, that has suspended activities over security concerns. Talks between a committee of nine people representing the protestors, UNHCR and representatives of the Libyan Interior Ministry have reportedly not gotten them closer to evacuations.

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