In “one of the biggest ever rescues” on the Mediterranean, 539 lives were saved off the coast of Italy, with at least 20 survivors displaying signs of torture in Libya. Recent data from the UN agencies reveal increased arrivals in Italy and steep drop in arrivals in Malta. EU and International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts death toll at more than 20,000 on the Mediterranean and West African routes since 2014.

On 28 August, the Italian coastguard rescued 539 people from a severely overcrowded fishing boat in what Lampedusa’s mayor described as “one of the biggest landings” in a single day. At least 20 of the people onboard had visible scars from torture in Libya. Dr Alida Serrachieri of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told media: “They had burn wounds, firearm wounds… [they] were very worn down, some were dehydrated”. The torture, abuse and brutality vulnerable people are exposed to in Libya is well documented, especially against migrants held in indefinite and arbitrary detention. MSF, having access to several centres, treated 36 migrants ‘for fractures, blunt trauma, abrasions, eye injuries, gunshot wounds and limb weaknesses’ during the month of February 2021 alone. The UN refugee agency has also described the risk of torture in centres as ‘very high’. In June 2021, 6,200 migrants were held in official detention centres, with an unknown number held in unofficial, militia-run centres or detained by criminal networks.

On 28 August a total of 820 people arrived on Lampedusa on 13 different boats. One group of 58 people included 10 children and a 4-month old baby. The capacity of reception facilities on Lampedusa are overstretched, recently housing as many as 1,200 people despite being built for just 250. Since the start of the year, more than 38,500 people have landed in Italy according to the UN Migration Agency (IOM). Only 325 people reached Malta by sea, down from 1,699 arrivals during the same period last year. The island state has increasingly relied upon hard-line policies and practices to deter migrants, including non-assistance at sea, “strong cooperation” with Libya, and detention and litigation against refugees and migrants arriving irregularly.

Between 2014 and 2020, IOM recorded more than 20,000 deaths and disappearances in the Mediterranean, while EU figures record 23,400 fatalities on the Mediterranean and Western African routes to Europe since 2014. While the official death toll for this year is estimated to be around 760 deaths, the NGO Alarm Phone has recorded many other unconfirmed shipwrecks with unknown numbers of fatalities. In the first half of 2021, the NGO hotline assisted 193 boats in distress carrying at least 13,750 people. This week the NGO also published testimonials of migrants recounting their experiences of torture, sexual violence, extortion and forced labour whilst held in indefinite an arbitrary detention in Libya. 22,419 people have been intercepted in the Mediterranean and returned to Libya in 2021, a dramatic increase given that fewer than 12,000 people were returned in this way in the whole of 2020.

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Photo: ECRE

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