In a statement the platform for civil society conducting search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, Mediterranea, regrets that it has to suspend rescue operations due to practical and health challenges resulting from the Corona virus. Departures have picked up again after weeks of bad weather and the civilian search and rescue capacity is limited at the moment.

With Mediterranea’s newly released vessels Mare Jonio and Alex unable to return to operations, the rescue vessels of Sea Watch, SOS Mediterranée and Médicins Sans Frontier (MSF) in port after finishing quarantine following disembarkations in Pozzallo and Messina, and Spanish Open Arms docked for repairs, the rescue capacity is limited. Yet departures continue and WatchTheMed Alarm Phone, a hotline for boatpeople in distress has reported several boats in distress in Libyan and Maltese search and rescue zones in recent days.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) released a statement on March 16, condemning the return to Libya of 49 people stranded in Maltese waters: “The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is alarmed by this apparent breach of international maritime law and appeals to the European Union and the international community for immediate and urgent action to end the return of vulnerable people to Libya and uphold the principle of non-refoulement.“ A statement from WatchTheMed Alarm Phone that documented the push back manoeuvre by Maltese authorities underlines the urgent risks of returns to Libya: “Every week, the Alarm Phone receives testimonies of torture, rape and other forms of violence against migrants detained in Libyan camps and prisons.”

According to the IOM more than 2,500 people have been returned to Libya this year: “Some were disembarked in Tripoli, hours after the main port in the city came under heavy shelling.”  Some 400 people were intercepted by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard and returned over the weekend, 301 were intercepted and taken back to Tripoli on March 14 and a further 105 on two different boats on March 15.

In a joint call from the Embassies of Algeria, France, Germany,  Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States along with the Delegation of the European Union and the Governments of Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates urges humanitarian cessation of hostilities in Libya in light of Coronavirus.

According to statistics from Missing Migrants 219 people have lost their life on the Mediterranean this year between January 1 and March 16.

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Photo: (CC) Tom Lee, August 2015

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