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Updated On: Wednesday, 26 September 2018

UN Criticizes Libya Migrant Detentions

Content by: South-South News

10 July 2018, New York, USA | South-South News — The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said its organization urged Libya to stop detaining migrants who have been returned to the country’s shores after trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to the European Union.

That appeal coincided with a call from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to boost search and rescue facilities in the region, amid concerns about a toughening stance in some EU countries against volunteer boats disembarking people plucked from the water.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva on July 6, IOM’s spokesperson Leonard Doyle explained that the chief of IOM William Lacy Swing had made a personal appeal to Libya’s Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj.On his third official visit since 2016 to the North African nation, which is a major migrant hub, Swing had met some of those held in detention.

Doyle said that Swing heard “absolutely awful personal stories of human grief in these detention centers,” adding that “his call, really, is not to send migrants back into detention.”

Asked whether the appeal might lead to positive change, Doyle said, “There are some signs - we have to wait and see what actually happens - that the authorities are willing to consider that, which would be a big step forward.”

Of more than 50 detention centers in operation last year in Libya, only 17 are still open, Doyle explained, adding that the bulk of migration happened in and around Tripoli, where the internationally recognized government is located.

Concerning the management of the detention centers, in which the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) has highlighted grave rights abuses in the past, Doyle said there is “government oversight” in some, “but it is far from comprehensive.”

The Spokesperson added that when Swing had met the Libyan Prime Minister, he had recommended the construction of separate centers for women and children.

The development follows a sharp increase in Libyan anti-smuggling operations in 2018, backed by the European Union.

Last month alone, almost 4,000 people were rescued in the country’s territorial waters, IOM said in a statement, noting with concern that migrants are sent into detention, often in overcrowded and poorly monitored centers.

On the potential impact of the IOM request, Doyle said that “we are already seeing vast improvements in many areas, the support with the coastguard is really impressive, despite occasional - from what we understand - rogue issues, there generally seems to be a desire by the coastguard personnel to save lives.”

Alternatives to detention which are available to the Libyan authorities include encouraging migrants to return home – with the help of IOM – Doyle explained.

He said, “They will probably do that by speeding up repatriation,” adding that “we support them in voluntary repatriation, voluntary return, humanitarian return from Libya. It sometimes takes a while because they don’t have papers and documents; the only embassies in the country really full-time are African embassies and even they have very low capacity.”

Also in Geneva, UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley highlighted concern over the high number of vulnerable people who continue to perish in the Mediterranean Sea.

Yaxley said that for the fifth year in a row, more than 1,000 people are dead or missing, while nearly 48,000 asylum-seekers and migrants have reached Europe’s shores in the first six months of 2018 – five times lower than in 2016, when arrivals peaked in the EU.

Yaxley said that the high loss of life illustrates the need to strengthen search and rescue at sea.

He added, “Again, the key, key priority has to be saving lives at sea. The numbers that continue to perish at sea are a tragic and unnecessary loss of live. We urgently need mechanisms in place that prevent people from putting their lives in the hands of smugglers and taking these often fatal journeys.”

Between January and April, non-governmental organizations have been responsible for around 40 per cent of rescue operations for those disembarked in Italy, UNHCR said in a statement.

But their support not been enough to prevent the loss of life at sea.

Yaxley said, “So far this year, in the last few years, NGOs have played a critical role in search and rescue operations.”

He added, “Their resources and their efforts are much needed to strengthen the capacities of search and rescue at sea and as we’ve seen this year, even those efforts have been insufficient together with the other people operating search and rescue to prevent more than 1,000 deaths.”

Following a recent decision by Italy to refuse docking rights to vessels carrying migrants, the UNHCR spokesperson reiterated the potential fatal impact, if boats are discouraged from responding to distress calls.Yaxley said, “It’s really critical that any boat or ship master that is in the vicinity of being able to come to the assistance of a distress call is allowed to do that.”

He added, “If we have any threats of legal action or the hint of repercussions of hanging over boats rescuing people at sea, then the very principle itself will potentially come under risk. You may see ship masters wavering over responding to distress calls and that is a dire situation not only for migrants and refugees, but for anyone who is in distress at sea.”

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