UN agencies protest after 270 rescued migrants forcibly returned to Libya

UN agencies protest after 270 rescued migrants forcibly returned to Libya
Over 270 migrants have been sent to Libyan detention centres after being rescued at sea, with UN agencies saying that Libya is not safe for them.
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Migrants trying to journey from Africa to Europe have been subjected to abuse in Libya [AFP File Image]

Over 270 Europe-bound migrants were rescued by a commercial ship off Libya's Mediterranean shores and handed over to the Libyan coast guard who sent them to detention centres, the UN migration and refugee agencies said.

The migrants were rescued in international waters on Monday by the Vos Triton sailing under the flag of Gibraltar, said the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR in a joint statement Wednesday evening.

A day later, they were returned by the Libyan coast guard to the port of Tripoli, from where they were taken into detention by Libyan authorities, the statement added.

“The two organizations reiterate that no one should be returned to Libya after being rescued at sea. Under international maritime law, rescued individuals should be disembarked at a place of safety,” said the agencies, adding that Libya cannot be considered “a safe place."

The vessel’s owners did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For almost a decade, war-torn Libya has been the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East and aspiring to settle in Europe. Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous central Mediterranean route.

In recent years, the EU has partnered with Libya’s coast guard and other local groups to stem such dangerous sea crossings. Rights groups, however, say those policies leave migrants at the mercy of either the sea or Libya’s armed groups, with many ending up confined in squalid detention centres rife with abuses.

So far this year, more than 13,000 migrants were returned to Libyan detention centres and hundreds have perished at sea, said both agencies.

“IOM and UNHCR call for an end to arbitrary detention in Libya through the establishment of a judicial review process, and advocate for alternatives to detention starting with the immediate release of the most vulnerable,” read the statement.

The UN agencies urged governments to grant merchant vessels rescuing people in distress “swift permission” for disembarkation in safe ports.