The Libyan government in Tripoli said it will stop taking in migrants rescued at sea by its own coastguard after it declared its own seaports unsafe.
Libya’s refusal to take people back comes at a time when European governments have been taking harsher measures to stop migrants since the start of the coronavirus crisis, leaving no option to asylum seekers escaping from torture and wars, who despite the fear of COVID-19 continue to risk their lives at sea in order to reach Europe.
The Libyan coastguard rescued about 280 migrants on Thursday, but when it attempted to return them to Libya, the country’s authorities refused to let them disembark, according to the UN migration agency IOM.
Authorities in Tripoli said that “due to the intensity in shelling, some of which previously targeted the capital’s main port, Libya is not considered a safe port”, the UN said.
Since a deal was signed with the Italian government in 2017, the Libyan coastguard has stopped migrant boats heading to Europe at sea and sent their passengers back to Libya, where aid agencies say they face torture and abuse.
In an unprecedented move on Tuesday, the Italian government also declared its seaports “unsafe” because of the coronavirus pandemic and said it would not authorise the landing of migrant rescue boats until the end of the emergency.
Last week, Malta’s government took a similar measure and also declared its seaports closed to migrants, citing the threat of the coronavirus. According to charities, Maltese authorities have also increasingly been delaying responses to migrant boats in distress.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus emergency, the central Mediterranean route has become increasingly impenetrable for people fleeing war-afflicted Libya.
The risk, according to charitable organisations, is that the restrictive measures in Libya, Italy and Malta will set the migrant situation back years, to when boats from Libya would set off on their own, risking people’s lives in the attempt to reach Italian shores.
“European governments’ actions to close their ports to people rescued at sea put lives at risk and cannot be justified on public health grounds,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Recent and unfolding events in the Mediterranean Sea raise serious concerns that European Union countries will use the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to evade their responsibilities under international law to respond to boats in distress at sea.”
On Friday, Italian authorities said a 15-year-old who had landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Tuesday had tested positive for Covid-19 and been placed under quarantine.
The rescue boat Alan Kurdi, operated by the German NGO Sea Eye and named after the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in 2015, is currently the only NGO rescue boat operating in the central Mediterranean.
The coronavirus outbreak has forced many charities to concentrate their aid efforts elsewhere, while other rescue groups, such as Sea Watch and SOS Méditerranée, have not returned to international waters after being quarantined for 14 days after their last missions at the end of February. (Source: The Guardian)