UN: Libya coast guard intercepts, detains about 400 migrants

CAIRO – Libya’s coast guard intercepted about 400 Europe-bound migrants off the country’s Mediterranean coast over the past two days, and brought them to the capital of Tripoli from where they were taken to a detention centre, the U.N. migration agency said Monday.

Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration said the migrants were taken to the al-Nasser detention centre in the town of Zawya, west of Tripoli, she said.

Mselhi said departures from Libya have increased, which is “especially worrying amid a sharp decrease in … search and rescue capacity.”

The U.N. refugee agency in Libya said two people had died of the 315 migrants who were intercepted and returned to Tripoli early on Monday. Their bodies were recovered, it added.

The other migrants, totalling around 85 persons, were intercepted earlier by the Libyan coast guard.

Libya, which descended into chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, has emerged as a major transit point for African and Arab migrants fleeing war and poverty to Europe.

Most migrants make the perilous journey in ill-equipped and unsafe rubber boats. The IOM said last month that its estimated death toll among migrants who have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 has surpassed 20,000.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, major maritime rescue charities, such as Ocean Viking and Sea-Watch, have suspended migrant rescue operations. Also, travel disruptions have forced the U.N. refugee and migration agencies to halt their resettlement flights for the most vulnerable people.

In recent years, the European Union has partnered with the coast guard and other Libyan forces to stop the flow of migrants. Rights groups say those efforts have left migrants at the mercy of brutal armed groups or confined in squalid and overcrowded detention centres that lack adequate food and water.

The EU agreed earlier this year to end an anti-migrant smuggler operation involving only surveillance aircraft and instead deploy military ships to concentrate on upholding a widely flouted U.N. arms embargo that’s considered key to winding down Libya’s relentless war.