Since the beginning of February, activity on the Mediterranean continues to be intense with departures from Libya, interceptions by the so-called Libyan coast guard, and rescues. About 1,500 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya within one week, where they face arbitrary detention and a vicious cycle of violence. 422 survivors, rescued by the civilian ship Ocean Viking, disembarked in Italy.

Within only one week, about 2,000 people attempted to escape Libya where migrants face hellish conditions including arbitrary detention, torture, and exploitation.  1,487 people departing from Libya were intercepted at sea and returned by the country’s so-called coast guard between 2 and 8 February. 800 people were intercepted and taken to detention centres within just 24 hours, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported on 5 February. The same day, a new interim government for Libya was formed at the Libyan dialogue forum held in Geneva with support of the UN.

Six bodies were recovered in the Central Mediterranean over the last week and at least three more people remain missing. According to IOM’s Missing Migrant Project, this brings this year’s death toll in the Mediterranean Sea to 135 lives that were lost within only six weeks.

In its joint communication on the Southern Neighbourhood – of which Libya is part – published on 9 February, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission (EC) reiterate enhancing partnerships on migration and mainstreaming respective interests in different strands of cooperation, including political, security and economic. “Strengthening migration and asylum governance including border management capacity is a key element. The EU is ready to support according to partners’ needs,” the document reads. The border management programmes in Libya under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) amount to €57.2 million and include the strengthening of the so-called Libyan coast guard through training and equipment.

Despite the fact that a large proportion of the civil fleet remains blocked in European ports, civil search and rescue actors continue to find capacity and ways to operate. On 1 February, Open Arms’ yacht Astral set sail for an observation and surveillance mission in the Central Mediterranean and on 2 February the organisation’s civil rescue ship Open Arms as well as the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee, left port to resume their life saving missions. In several operations on 4 and 5 February, the Ocean Viking took on board more than 420 people in distress.  A further 45 people were located by the Astral and brought to Lampedusa by an Italian patrol boat. The survivors had been adrift on an unseaworthy rubber boat for three days with barely any food nor water. 238 people arrived in Lampedusa between 4 and 6 February. After five dangerous days at sea, 20 people who left Algerian shores on 4 February were rescued by a commercial ship and brought to Sardinia, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reports.

On 9 February, the Ocean Viking completed the disembarkation of 422 survivors in the safe port of Augusta, Sicily. A pregnant woman in critical condition and her partner had previously been flown to Malta in a medical evacuation by Maltese Armed Forces. According to Italian authorities, 49 survivors from the Ocean Viking tested positive for corona virus. Eight positive cases had already been detected and isolated on board the Ocean Viking. About 70 of the survivors were transferred to a reception centre, the remaining boarded the quarantine cruise ship Rhapsody, and Ocean Viking’s crew started their mandatory 14-day quarantine.

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Photo: ECRE

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