AQUARIUS, Mediterranean Sea - An increase in the number of migrants intercepted by Libya’s coast guard whilst crossing the Mediterranean means more are now trapped in horrific conditions in the country’s notorious detention centres, a leading NGO has said.
Ships operated by aid charities have noted a marked reduction in the number of rescues required in recent weeks which coincides with an Italian naval mission to assist the Libyan coast guard to curb the flow of migrants.
The numbers making the journey had been slowing over recent months but dropped sharply during the first weekend of the operation as 1,124 people were intercepted, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
But aid groups suggest the apparent stemming of one problem is exacerbating another far bigger issue.
Marcella Kraay, MSF-OCA Project Coordinator currently aboard the Aquarius, told HuffPost UK: “This may sound like a solution of the problem [of people-trafficking] but actually it’s more a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
“What this actually means is people are being returned to Libya which is not a safe place.”
Around 2,230 people, most of them fleeing poverty, violence and forced military conscription, died in the first seven months of 2017 trying to make the sea crossing.
Migrants make the journey to Libya from countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan as well as sub-Saharan Africa and Syria, often on the promise of work in the country or better prospects in Europe
But once there they face a host a host of abuses including arbitrary arrest, routine torture, forced prostitution and extortion.
Many are openly bought and sold in markets.
Kraay added: “We know that people are being returned to detention centres when they are intercepted at sea, this is what’s happened in the past and we assume that’s what’s happening today which means those centres are getting very full and the cycle of abuse, extortion and violence starts again.”
“And sure, for the time being fewer people are getting out but at what cost?
“Taking away people’s only chance of escape from the horrors of Libya is not making the situation any better.”
If migrants are intercepted in international waters either by an NGO, the Italian coast guard or a commercial vessel, they cannot be sent back to Libya as the Italian Government has deemed it unsafe for migrants.
But those intercepted in Libyan waters - 12 nautical miles from the coast - by Libyan vessels can be taken back to shore.
The European Commission (EC), Frontex and the Italian Government are all working to curb people-smuggling and trafficking along the so-called Central Mediterranean route.
This includes training of Libyan personnel who crew boats supplied by the Italian Government and millions of Euros given to EC development programmes in the area.
Kraay said: “We’ve had multiple reports from the people here on the ship that we’ve rescued at sea that they’ve tried more than once to get out and every time they were returned back to Libya and each time they had to pay.
“Meanwhile Europe is giving money to a country that is notoriously corrupt and lawless and the human suffering in Libya is immense.”
The crackdown on people-smugglers has also been mirrored by an increasing hardline on NGO boats by the Italian government with the two sides recently battling each other over a new code of conduct for rescue operations in international waters.
A boat operated by Open Arms, which did not initially sign up to the new rules, was denied permission by the Italian Government to dock in Italy and Malta on Monday.
It was then reported on Tuesday that it had now agreed to the code of conduct.
But in Libyan territorial waters, the current instability in the country makes ascertaining who is actually in charge of coast guard operations difficult.
Kraay said: “We can’t even speak of the ‘Libyan coast guard’ - Libya is a country that is split between different governments that control different parts of the country and we see the same thing on the water.
“When we’ve encountered Libyan vessels in the past, some of them look like the Libyan coast guard but some of them look like someone has just painted [the decal] on the side and others look more formal.
“It’s always hard to say who’s who.”
The volatility of the situation was demonstrated yesterday when a Libyan coast guard vessel fired machine guns at an NGO ship in international waters.
Frontex stressed to HuffPost UK that it does not directly fund Libya or the Libyan coast guard.
A spokesperson added: “The topics covered by nine Frontex trainers included preparing and planning of law enforcement operations and combating of smuggling and trafficking of human beings.
“It also covered the protection of human rights in all coast guard activities.”
Meanwhile, the UN special envoy for Libya is supporting Italy’s contested naval mission to help the Libyan coast guard stop migrant smugglers’ boats, reports the Associated Press.
Ghassan Salame met in Rome on, Tuesday with Italy’s premier and foreign minister. He praised as the “right path” Italy’s recently approved mission to help Libya turn back smugglers’ boats while still in Libyan waters.
Libyan factions opposing the UN-backed government in Tripoli contend the mission violates national sovereignty.
Salame also told reporters he’ll travel throughout Libya soon to speak with its many political players to report back to the UN General Assembly in September.
Salame is tasked with encouraging political stability in Libya, which has been plagued by militia and other factional fighting since Moammar Gadhafi’s decades-long regime ended during the so-called 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.