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Libya: Lack of COVID-19 tests when boats return risks surge in cases, warns IRC

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers intercepted at sea and returned to Libya must be provided with COVID-19 testing to prevent them falling through the cracks and being unable to access the care they need, the International Rescue Committee warns. 

Since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Libya on March 25, over 3,100 people have been brought back to Libya’s shores - and not a single one has been tested for the disease.

Given that 28 migrants who left Libya for Italy in June tested positive upon arrival in Sicily, the IRC is extremely concerned about this gap in the country’s COVID-19 response and is calling for testing to be rapidly scaled-up - both at Libya’s disembarkation points and across the country - to ensure all those in need of support are able to receive it.

“When people are brought back from sea, we’re given very limited time to support them,” said Tom Garofalo, Country Director for the IRC in Libya. “Our health and protection teams are allowed only to provide people with emergency medical care and a few basic supplies before they are taken away either to detention centres or released in towns and cities. Although we try to carry out basic temperature checks, sometimes even this simple step is not allowed. The lack of something so basic - let alone the ability to carry out proper testing - is a real cause for concern because it means there is a risk that the disease is being spread in the detention centres and in communities, and is going undetected. 

“There are thousands of people being held in detention centres and the conditions they are living in are horrific. They’re overcrowded and often completely unsanitary. People can neither practice social distancing there nor carry out regular handwashing. Many are in poor health as it is so, if one person gets the disease - soon, everyone will have it. 

“For those who are free to go back to their communities, the situation isn’t much better. Very few have access to healthcare because they are too afraid to leave their homes or are simply denied access. They live under constant threats: of robbery, of abduction and of abuse - the very conditions that drove them to try and reach Europe in the first place. If they become ill, many will not seek treatment and even those who do, have very few options available to them because, at best, only six per cent of health facilities in the country are fully functioning. To protect as many people as possible, we urgently need to see the response scaled up - and one of the key expansions that needs to happen is testing of those brought back from sea.” 

In Libya, the National Centre for Disease Control is responsible for COVID-19 testing but the organisation has been present to check temperatures at only a handful of disembarkations since March. This reveals a larger scale problem: that testing is scarce and largely unavailable across the country, especially in the South. 

The IRC is calling for an immediate end to arbitrary detention and for those brought back from sea to receive all necessary health care, and for referrals to be made for those who need further care or specialized services. Additionally, testing capacity across the country must be scaled-up and access to health and protection services for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must be expanded so that they can receive the care they need - something even more vital during the pandemic. 

The IRC is supporting the Libyan COVID-19 response with training of front-line health workers and the provision of additional isolation units. Our health staff are part of the five Rapid Response Teams the Ministry of Health has created to carry out initial assessments of suspected cases and tracing of their contacts. With most public health facilities closed in Tripoli and Misrata due to a lack of capacity, our mobile support to the Ministry of Health is proving vital in reaching vulnerable communities in this response.


About the IRC in Libya

Since August 2016, the IRC has provided emergency and reproductive health services in western Libya. The IRC is one of the few international organizations with a direct presence in Libya with two offices in Tripoli and Misrata. As Libya continues to endure political instability and violence, the IRC is focused on: providing critical healthcare in hard to reach places in western Libya; providing life-saving medicines to primary health clinics, where possible; providing a referral pathway for patients in urgent need; renovating primary health clinics which have been damaged during the conflict; deploying experienced social workers to provide case management and psychosocial support in communities impacted by the conflict.

The IRC has launched a US $30 million appeal to help us mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the world’s most vulnerable populations. We are working across three key areas: to mitigate and respond to the spread of coronavirus within vulnerable communities; protect IRC staff; and ensure the continuation of our life-saving programming as much as possible across more than 40 countries worldwide.


About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.