In just the past eight months, over 23,000 people have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya after trying to reach safety in Europe - almost double the total for the whole of 2020 and the highest number on record since interceptions by the Libyan Coast Guard began in 2017, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) says.

The total includes more than 1,000 children and over 1,500 women - at least 68 of whom were pregnant. When assessed by the IRC, many of the children were deemed to be at risk - for example traveling on their own or separated from their families; suffering from high levels of emotional distress; in ill health or traveling with parents who need medical treatment. Yet almost all survivors were sent to Libya’s notorious detention centres, where exploitation, abuse and multiple other violations of their human rights take place on a regular basis.  

When the Libyan Coast Guard first began carrying out EU-funded interceptions in 2017, a total of 15,358 people were brought back to shore. This number decreased year on year to a low of around 9,000 in 2019, but in 2020 the numbers spiked once again to 11,891 - and this year have already surpassed the 2017 total. However, no one should be returned to Libya after being rescued at sea. Under international maritime law, people rescued at sea should be disembarked at a place of safety.

Without support from the international community to address the situations in Libya and other countries of origin that drive people to seek a better life - such as conflict, COVID-19 and climate change, as well as human rights abuses, food insecurity and economic constraints - the IRC is concerned that thousands more will continue to risk their lives at sea in search of safety.

Tom Garofalo, the IRC’s Country Director in Libya, said:

“In just eight months we’ve seen more people brought back to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard than we have ever witnessed before. 23,000 is an unprecedented number and it highlights the ongoing severity of the situation in Libya. A decade of violence and unrest, a struggling economy and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the challenges faced by all those living in the country. Today, an estimated 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance – a 40% increase compared to 2020.

“For people in search of safety and protection, such as asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, life in Libya is especially hard. They are at constant risk of a long list of abuses that can include kidnapping, sexual violence and even torture. They are not safe in Libya and they cannot go home or elsewhere - many having fled similar circumstances in their countries of origin or in transit. Often they will already have faced abuse and exploitation at the hands of smugglers on their journey to get here. It is no wonder that they want to leave, but since safe and legal ways are extremely limited, getting to Europe across the Med is often viewed as the only chance they have of reaching safety. 

“To send people who have risked their lives and been through so much already to detention centres - where the abuses they were trying to escape are also rampant - is not only a violation of their human rights, it is also inhuman. Conditions in these facilities are too often deplorable, with many lacking access to health care and clean drinking water. Women and children are especially vulnerable - strip searches by male guards have been repeatedly documented and children are not separated from adults when it comes to sleeping arrangements. They need protection - everyone needs that. But they do not get it in detention. All detainees must urgently be released and upon release it is vital that they are provided with access to the support, such as healthcare and counselling, that they so desperately need.”

The IRC is calling for all those arbitrarily held in detention in Libya to be immediately released, for the practice of arbitrary detention to be brought to an immediate end, and for irregular migration to be decriminalised by the Libyan authorities. Additionally, the IRC is calling for the EU to urgently review its approach to migration - particularly its support to the Libyan Coast Guard - and to relaunch its own search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean to ensure that survivors are disembarked at a place of safety. Libya is not a safe port or a safe country, and people should not be returned there.

*Note to the editors

About the IRC in Libya

Since August 2016, the IRC has provided life-saving health and protection services in Libya, as well as vital support to strengthen the country’s health system. The IRC has two offices in Libya: one in Tripoli and one in Misrata and more than 220 staff. As Libya continues to endure political instability and violence, the IRC is focused on: providing critical healthcare in hard to reach places; providing life-saving medicines to primary health clinics and – where possible – providing a referral pathway for patients in urgent need; renovating primary health clinics which have been damaged as a result of the conflict; deploying experienced social workers to provide case management and psychosocial support in communities impacted by the conflict.

Between January and July 2021, the IRC has carried out over 108 emergency response operations at Libya’s ports supporting almost 16,000 people, including 1,042 women and 1,029 children (below the age of 18) who were returned from sea by the Libyan Coast Guard after trying to reach safety in Europe. 

With Libya now having endured over a decade of political instability and conflict, the IRC is focused on: