According to the latest update from the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) due to red-tape and criminalization by European authorities only two civilian vessels are currently carrying out rescue missions. At least four people including an eight-year old boy died when a boat carrying more than 40 people capsized off the Canary Islands on 17 June. 18 people are believed to have drowned following a shipwreck off Libya on 20 June. More than 14,000 people so far in 2021, have been intercepted and returned to detention in Libya where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been forced to suspend its activities in government run detention centres due to ongoing violence against detainees and recent reports have emerged of children being sexually abused by guards.

The June 2021 Update – Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean and fundamental rights from FRA reveals that: “Due to ongoing criminal and administrative proceedings, vessel seizures, as well as mandatory maintenance work” only six of 19 civilian search and rescue assets currently operate and out of these only two vessels perform SAR operations (‘Geo Barents’ and ‘Ocean Viking’). Nine vessels from the civilian search and rescue fleet are blocked in ports pending legal proceedings, four are docked for other reasons including mandatory maintenance work. The FRA update quotes the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for estimates of 813 people having died or gone missing crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2021 as of 15 June – an average of almost five people per day. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported on a shipwreck on 20 June off Libya believed to have cost the life of 18 people.

The recovery of the body of an eight-year-old boy, marks the fourth confirmed death after a shipwreck off the Canary Island of Lanzarote on 17 June. Additionally, one man and two women, one of them pregnant, have already been confirmed dead and a six year-old girl remains missing. The boat flipped as it approached the shore of the Órzola village, leaving the passengers in the water. Local residents and emergency workers managed to rescue 41 people including seven children. Two men who allegedly were steering the boat have been arrested on suspicion of “encouraging illegal immigration and reckless homicide” – reportedly a total of 89 people have been detained on similar charges in 2021 so far.

Several rescue operations were carried out by the Spanish coast guard over the past week and reportedly one person falling into the Atlantic during an ongoing rescue operation is missing. 5,700 people have made the crossing to Spain from Africa so far this year, which is twice the number for the same period of 2020. Thousands of people have lost their lives over the past decades en route to Spain and almost 500 disappeared just over the past weeks.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has announced the organisation feels obliged to temporarily suspend its activities in Mabani and Abu Salim detention centres in Tropili Libya, stating: “Since February this year, incidents of ill-treatment, physical abuse and violence against people held in these detention centres have increased steadily. Over the space of just one week, our teams witnessed first-hand, and received at least three reports of, violent incidents resulting in severe physical and psychological harm”.

In Shara al-Zawiya detention centre run by Libya’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM) supported by the European Union, guards have sexually abused at least five under aged Somali teenagers. One of the victims had been imprisoned and sexually abused by human traffickers, known for extorting, torturing and assaulting migrants trying to reach Europe for two years when she was ‘rescued’ by Libyan security forces. Instead she faced rape and abuse by guards. According to Tarik Lamloum, a Libyan activist working with the Belaady Organization for Human Rights. “Sexual violence and exploitation are rife in several detention centers (for migrants) across the country”. Following beatings and sexual abuse, two of the girls attempted suicide, one of them was just 15-years old. The sexual abuse of migrant women in Libya is well documented and already in 2019 a UN report stated: “Sexual violence continues to be perpetrated with impunity by traffickers and smugglers along migration routes, in detention centres, judicial police prisons, and against urban migrants by militants and armed groups”. The Guinean woman Aisha summarises her experience in the country with the following statement: “I had left a nightmare only to fall into hell”. In response to this most recent evidence of the widespread violence and abuse of detained migrants in government run facilities in Libya, European Commission spokesperson Dana Spinat stated: “We have our position on detention centres. They need to close”. The EU has invested 60 million Euro in migration prevention in Libya and recently praised its cooperation with authorities in the country.  Ahead of the Berlin International Conference on Libya, hosted by the German government and the United Nations on 23 June, four INGOs including ECRE members the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) stated: “Currently, more than five thousand migrants, refugees and asylum seekers languish in often abusive conditions in Libya’s detention centres. While this year is on course to see a record number of migrants and refugees intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to Libya, despite the UN declaring it cannot be considered a safe place for disembarkation”. Sea-Watch reported of yet another pushback on 23 June when the so-called Libyan coast guard prevented the rescue of 20 people by nearby Italian merchant vessels and left them adrift for “12 long shameful hours” before intercepting them.

Italy, a country providing training and support for the so-called Libyan coast guard and cooperating closely with the country on migration prevention has announced a humanitarian corridor to bring 500 people from Libya to Italy. According to IOM Libya 1,594 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya between 13 – 19 June and the total for 2021 so far is 14,388 people.

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 Photo: (CC) Josh Evnin, May 2012

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