According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of 11 September 23,601 people on the move have been returned to Libya in 2021, where murder, torture and rape continues to be the order of the day. Arrivals to Italy continue, with UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) figures showing more than 40,000 arrivals this year as of mid-September. Despite intense civilian search and rescue efforts, 1,103 people have died or gone missing on the central Mediterranean route so far in 2021. The start of September also marked a busy time for Spanish rescuers in the Western Mediterranean.
The number of people returned to Libya this year is almost double of the total of all of last year, when 11,891 people were returned. This total includes more than 800 people returned by the so-called Libyan coast guard during the week prior to 17 September alone. According to the UNHCR, the majority of those being returned are nationals of Sudan (17%), Mali (11%), and Bangladesh (11%). On 13 September, UNHCR reported 184 people including six children returned to Oil Refinery point in Azzawiya . Also recently, Libyan authorities deported 53 Egyptian nationals who attempted to reach Europe by boat back to Egypt. IOM reiterates that “Libya is not a safe port”, a truth reflected in countless testimonies and reports of torture, beatings and rape of detainees in official detention centres holding an estimated 6000 people. Beyond the abuse in official detention centres, people on the move are exposed to violent criminal networks. Over the weekend of 10-12 September two suspected human traffickers were apprehended by Libyan authorities. One was arrested on suspicion of beating and torturing migrants for ransom while the other allegedly “murdered dozens of migrants, sexually assaulted migrant women and mistreated detained exiles for ransom from their families” and trafficked organs of his victims. Local Tunisian fishermen with a history of rescuing people in distress after departing from Libya are blocking the port of Zarzis to demand protection from attacks and hijackings by the so-called Libyan coast guard in Tunisian waters. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone expressed solidarity with fishermen.
UNHCR statistics reveal a total of 40,936 sea arrivals to Italy as of 12 September. IOM reports that out of 39,410 people arriving to Italy by Mediterranean routes between 1 January and 31 August, 18,089 departed from Libya and 14,560 from Tunisia. In July and August alone, 8,000 people reached Italian shores. According to Info Migrants the majority – 3,904 people – were departing from Tunisia. During the same period Tunisian authorities prevented 5,582 from leaving mainly through interceptions at sea carried out with “the coordination of the Italian and European parties”. In the first week of September, 3,236 people reached Italy via the Mediterranean from North Africa, marking the highest number since July 2017. Further, almost 5,000 people had reportedly arrived to Italy from Turkey in 2021 as of the first weeks of September. In Lampedusa, one of the main arrival points for people crossing the Med, COVID-19 vaccination centres have been established for people disembarking on the island. 53,000 asylum cases are pending in Italy, with 20,000 applications made in the country this year.
The past weeks have been hectic at sea on the Mediterranean with numerous incidents of lives in danger. German search and rescue vessel Sea-Eye 4 was given permission to dock in Sicily on 5 September with 30 survivors including two heavily pregnant women and four babies in need of medical care. Also on 5 September, 186 survivors including at least 13 children in two boats arrived to Lampedusa. The bodies of two people, believed to be casualties of a shipwreck in June, were also recovered that day. The Astral, a vessel operated by Spanish NGO Open Arms, rescued 86 people in two separate operations off Lampedusa on 8 September and survivors were handed over to Italian authorities. 125 people including 20 children in “an evident state of shock” were rescued by the Italian coast guard off Lampedusa on 10 September and another 40 people on 12 September in an operation supported by the Geo Barents vessel operated by MSF Sea. Also on 12 September, Alarm Phone reported of 20 people in distress in the Alboran sea and expressed hope that they would soon be rescued. On the same day, the body of 15-year old boy who died attempting to climb a cliff on the beach of Los Muertos, in Carboneras (Almería) was recovered by firefighters after being alerted to the incident by a wounded youth who survived the climb. The two had arrived by sea but Spanish rescuers from Salvamento Marítimo were unable to reach them. Italian media reported on 14 September of 13 boat landings in Lampedusa bringing the number of people in the Contrada Imbracola hotspot with a capacity for 250 people to 400 detainees. On 16 September, Alarm Phone reported 45 people adrift in the Maltese search and rescue zone with authorities unresponsive. According to IOM, the dangerous route across the central Mediterranean has cost the lives of 1,103 people so far in 2021. “Yet the EU refuses to create rescue capacity to save lives. Instead, European countries spend millions of euros on operations like Frontex that merely fly over boats in distress”, states Sea-Watch International.
In addition to dangerous crossings of the Central Mediterranean, various rescues took place in the Western Mediterranean and Alboran Sea. On 3-4 September, 171 people were brought to shore along Spain’s Murcia coast and a further 87 were assisted off Granada and in the Gibraltar strait. One person was recorded as having died whilst making the crossing. According to Spanish authorities, 73% of the people that reached Spain and the Balearic Islands via the Mediterranean in the first half of 2021 were of Algerian nationality. On 12 September, Alarm Phone reported 20 people in distress in the Alboran sea and expressed hope that they would soon be rescued. On the same day, the body of 15-year old boy who died attempting to climb a cliff on the beach of los Muertos, in Carboneras (Almería), was recovered by firefighters after being alerted to the incident by a wounded youth who survived the climb. The two had arrived by sea but Spanish rescuers were unable to reach them. Media the next day reported that 280 people had arrived in Almeria in the last 36 hours, while more than 70 migrants were rescued off Granada.
For further information:
- ECRE, Med: More Than 500 People Rescued Off Lampedusa, Arrivals Up in Italy as Malta Sees Decrease, 23,400 Lives Lost on Main Migratory Routes Since 2014, September 2021
- ECRE, Med: More than 20,000 People Intercepted and Returned to Libya in 2021 – Civilian Rescue Assets Released after Detention by Italian Authorities, August 2021