September 20, 2021

Head of IOM asks Libya not to send rescued migrants back to detention

3 min read
William Lacy Swing, head of IOM, the UN Migration Agency, appealed to the Libyan authorities to stop detaining migrants after they have been intercepted by the Coast Guard after seeking to cross the Mediterranean.

William Lacy Swing, head of IOM, the UN Migration Agency, appealed to the Libyan authorities to stop detaining migrants after they have been intercepted by the Coast Guard after seeking to cross the Mediterranean. IOM also seeks to speed up the process of voluntary return of migrants to their countries of origin.

Facing the press in Tripoli Amb Swing delivered a powerful message about protecting migrants’ rights

“In my meeting with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj I appealed that migrants brought back to shore or rescued by the Coast Guard not be put into detention centres,” said Amb. Swing “Those who wish to go home should be speedily and voluntarily returned to their countries of origin rather than linger in detention.”

With EU support, Libya has dramatically stepped up its anti-smuggling operations this year. The number of migrants being rescued or intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard while still in Libya’s territorial waters has greatly increased—to almost 4,000 in the past month alone. Yet, because migrants are then sent into detention in often over-crowded, poorly monitored centres, concerns remain for their welfare.

“I hope that this change of policy will now take place as it seems particularly cruel to send migrants heading to Europe back into detention, especially when it is not necessary,” DG Swing added.

Amb Swing thanked the Prime Minister for considering his proposal to avoid sending migrants back to detention and to set up segregated centers for women and children being detained.

He also thanked the government for establishing a migration working group and attended a meeting of this new body which comprises concerned government ministries and international organizations working in Libya.

On his third visit to Libya since 2017, Swing also requested of the country’s Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj that separate centres be built for women and children, that put in measures in place to keep families together.

On Swing’s two-day visit to the country, he met with rescued migrants in detention. He also had a round of meetings with government ministers to press his case for easing the detention conditions, and to improve access to migrants for IOM’s more than 260 staff who operate across the country. Swing also met with EU and other UN representatives and accredited diplomats who are concerned with the political impact and the great human suffering that results from migrants being smuggled to Europe.

Although Libya’s oil economy is much diminished, the country attracts migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, either those looking for jobs or seeking to be smuggled into Europe.

The numbers of migrants who arrived in Europe via Libya this year is down significantly down (some 16,700 compared to over 85,000 during the first half of last year). At the same time over 1,000 migrants have drowned tragically while attempting to make the crossing to Europe this year. Since mid-June an estimated 489 migrants drowned in a series of tragedies just offshore.

Amb. Swing visited Tajura detention centre where most of those rescued over the weekend are being held. He spoke with several detainees and observed the conditions

One 25 year-old-man from West Africa, who was rescued at sea on Sunday, lost his wife and three children when their overcrowded craft capsized. The man had spent several years working a as a barber in Libya but decided to try to flee to Europe after he was kidnapped and threatened, he told IOM protection staff.

At the centre two distraught orphaned children, aged 12 and 8, from Sierra Leone approached Amb Swing with tears streaming down their faces. The older girl recounted how their mother had died leaving them to fend for themselves in Libya. IOM staff have contacted family members and are seeking to reunite the children with them.

Swing made repeated calls for leniency towards the migrants while praising the lifesaving actions of the Coast Guard.

It was Amb. Swing’s third visit to Libya since 2016 and he was the first senior official to visit Libya since the fall of Gadaffi in 2011. The oil-rich country has long depended on the skills of migrants to keep its economy going, although many migrants seeking passage to Europe can be terribly exploited.

Seventeen detention centres scattered around Libya remain operational, down from 54 last year. There is government oversight in some of them, but it is far from comprehensive. In some centres human rights abuses of migrants are reported.

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