The Malta Independent 16 July 2019, Tuesday

Libya: Signs and warnings of a migration crisis increasing

Jeremy Micallef Monday, 6 May 2019, 08:05 Last update: about 3 months ago

Signs and warnings from various entities point towards a dramatic uptick in crossings through the Central Mediterranean route from Libya in the recent future, due to both the turn of the season to more desirable travel conditions, and the ongoing civil war in Libya between factions vying for power in the country.

The combination of 800,000 illegal migrants noted by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj temporarily on Libyan ground, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates of a further 230,855 internally displaced Libyans and registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Libya is fast reaching a Humanitarian Crisis, if not having been one for a while already.


A UNHCR update for Libya from 26 April describes how the situation is becoming increasingly stressful for those on the ground.

In just two days, UNHCR and IOM transferred over 650 refugees and migrants from Qaser Ben Gasheer detention center to Azzawya detention center, including the evacuation of all persons from Qaser Ben Gasheer in southern Tripoli following alarming reports of armed violence being used against detainees.

They also transferred another 1,200 refugees to other areas, with an estimated 3,332 refugees and migrants still in detention centers in the proximity of the clashes.

All this whilst a near exodus of locals leaving their homes with nowhere to go, and finding them displaced right in the middle of a civil war.

The UNHCR repeated its calls for the release of refugees from detention, and humanitarian evacuations out of Libya.


Search & Rescue NGO helpless

Speaking with The Malta Independent on Sunday, NGO Sea-Watch explained how with enough “eyes and ears” in the Central Mediterranean, they could not confirm whether there was an increase in crossings or any changes in activity.

“We simply do not know how many people are/were at sea and what happened to them.”

“With our own Sea-Watch 3 blocked from going on mission, and other rescue NGOs in a similar situation, very little opportunities exist to monitor what is happening in terms of crossings, shipwrecks, rescues by other actors like the so-called ‘Libyan coast guard’ or commercial vessels, pull-backs etc.”

The Sea-Watch 3 and other NGO ships have been blocked by the Dutch government citing concerns for safety of those being brought on board their vessels.

Through aerial reconnaissance, however, they said that they occasionally witness “non-assistance and/or illegal pull-backs of boats in distress to Libya, including after the fighting escalated again in Libya early April”, but they insist that they “simply do not have the full facts about how many boats were put out to sea after the fighting and if this constitutes an increase, let alone what may have happened to them”.

“Of course, it is only natural that when the situation escalates as it has, that Libyans and non-Libyans alike would bear the brunt of the fighting and be moved to flee.”

They noted that people fleeing Libya do not source boats or organize a crossing by themselves, but explain that the militia-run smuggling networks facilitating the sea crossings are a well known phenomenon, and they will be undoubtedly also be somehow affected by the fighting.

They, again, reiterate that they are not entirely clear yet, how they are affected, although adding that knowing what the weather is going to be like and knowing that some seasons tend historically to be “busier” with crossings than others.

“Right now, with our rescue ship still stuck in port, we cannot take any practical steps to prepare for any need for rescue other than to keep fighting to free our ship and get operational as soon as possible.”


Ministry mum

This newspaper sent a number of questions to both the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security on discussions with the Libyan authorities, the government’s position on the conflict in Libya, the potential sharp increase in migrant arrivals and contingency plans.

The Ministry for Home Affairs said that a contingency plan is in place with regards to the boat crossings, but it did not go into further detail.

No replies were forthcoming from the Foreign Affairs Ministry at the time of going to print.


Terrorists and criminals among 800,000 – Libyan PM

In an interview with Sky News last month, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj rhetorically asked what is going to happen with this security breakdown is that 800,000 illegal migrants temporarily on Libyan ground will have to leave Libya, and will cross the sea towards Europe.

“Amongst those 800,000 there are terrorists and criminals. This will be disastrous.”

He insisted that the dispute is not between two political powers, but between “an attacking force on a safe capital, on people living in their homes, on their facilities, and on their services”.

“This is an attempt to take over power. This is the definition of what is happening now.”

The Libyan Prime Minister is calling these attacks war crimes, whilst the General attacking the capital insists he is clearing the city of terrorists.

Al-Sarraj asked whether Tripoli had “suddenly become a terrorist city”, and whether the residents in Abu Salim, Ain Zara and Sawani were also terrorists.

“Or are these crimes against humanity? Isn’t it time now to call it as it is?”

The Prime Minister didn’t rule out calling for outside military intervention, particularly with “civilians being targeted in their homes, hospitals and schools”.

“I think all means for us to get help from one of the parties to stop this assault.”

When asked if he meant military help, he replied that he hopes “it doesn’t get to that point but the protection of civilians is a top priority.”

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