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Migrants returned to Libya detained as UN calls for change in EU policy

UN refugee agency accuses the European Union of 'politicking around sea rescues' as 170 people feared dead and hundreds detained in Libya
Nearly 500 migrants were returned to Libya since Saturday after trying to reach Europe (Reuters/File photo)

Local officials say that nearly 500 migrants have been brought back to Libya since Saturday, after they were picked up at sea trying to reach the coasts of Europe.

Libyan coastguard spokesperson Ayoub Qassem said the figures, released on Tuesday, include more than 140 migrants who were rescued in the Mediterranean by the “Lady Sham” cargo ship on 20 January.

The United Nations has called on countries to halt all forcible returns to Libya amid widespread human rights abuses in the North African country.

In addition to the hundreds of migrants sent back to Libya over the past several days, around 170 people are believed to have died in two separate shipwrecks over the weekend.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the migrants were brought to Libya's western city of Misrata on Monday and then transferred to a detention centre.

"It remains unclear when and from where in Libya these individuals departed. IOM staff counted 26 women and four children among those taken to a detention centre in Misrata," the group said.

Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR), called on states to stop returning migrants found at sea to Libya, given the country's political upheaval and "widespread human rights violations".

“No rescued refugees and migrants should be returned there,” Yaxley wrote in a brief on Tuesday.

Libya has been torn between rival administrations and a myriad of militias since the overthrow and killing of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Despite that, it has become a jumping off point for many migrants and asylum seekers, many from sub-Saharan Africa, as they seek to reach Europe.

Often crammed into shoddy vessels, the Mediterranean crossings off the Libyan coast have become increasingly perilous.

'Politicking around sea rescues'

Yaxley denounced “politicking around sea rescues” by European states that have restricted aid groups from conducting missions.

Last month, Doctors Without Borders announced that it was forced to suspend operations of the Aquarius search and rescue ship, which has helped almost 30,000 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in international waters between Libya, Italy and Malta.

The group said the decision came after what it said were attempts by European countries to stymie the vessel's efforts in the Mediterranean.

Politicians must stop using human-beings for political point-scoring, and to instead address this as a humanitarian issue

- Charlie Yaxley, UNHCR spokesman

“Politicians must stop using human beings for political point-scoring, and to instead address this as a humanitarian issue, with saving lives the priority. Reducing arrivals cannot be the only barometer for success when people are drowning on Europe’s doorstep," Yaxley said in his brief.

"Lives are being tragically lost," he added.

HRW made a similar call in a report released on Monday, accusing the European Union of “enabling the barbaric detention system” in Libya and failing to do enough to ensure the safety of people disembarking from the North African country to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

“Migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya, including children, are trapped in a nightmare, and what EU governments are doing perpetuates detention instead of getting people out of these abusive conditions,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe director at HRW.

IOM said at least 4,883 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea during the first 20 days of 2019.

According to HRW's report, almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya last year were children.

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