10:26, July 03 239 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-03 10:26:03
Mediterranean: more than 200 migrants drown in three days

More than 200 migrants have drowned at sea in the Mediterranean in the past three days, taking the death toll for the year to more than 1,000 and prompting fears that human traffickers are taking greater risks because of the joint crackdown imposed by the Italian government and the Libyan coastguard.

The UN refugee agency in Tripoli reported on Monday that 276 refugees and migrants were disembarked in the Libyan capital on Monday, including 16 survivors of a boat carrying 130 people, of whom 114 were still missing at sea. Further shipwrecks were found at the weekend.

On Tuesday, the Libyan coastguard reported a further seven deaths and a further 123 migrants rescued.

The 1,000 deaths landmark was reached on 1 July. It isthe fourth year in succession that more than 1,000 migrants have died trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.

Othman Belbeisi, the chief of mission in Libya at the International Organization for Migration, claimed the “alarming increase” in deaths at sea was out of the ordinary.

“Smugglers are exploiting the desperation of migrants to leave before there are further crackdowns on Mediterranean crossings by Europe,” he said.

Overall the number of migrants reaching Italy by sea is down on last year’s figures, but the proportion of those trying to reach Italy that are drowning is rising, prompting claims that the stricter Italian government policy is increasing deaths.

Figures prepared by Matteo Villa, a research fellow at the Italian thinktank ISPI, show that so far in 2018 only half of those leaving Libya have made it to Europe, down from 86 % last year.

The data shows 44 % have been brought back by the Libyan coastguard, compared with 12 % last year. A total of 4.5 % died or had gone missing compared with 2.3% last year. But in June, almost one in 10 died or went missing upon departure from the Libyan coast – the highest proportion ever.

The Libyan coastguard has returned about 10,000 people to shore this year, according to the IOM. That trend is likely to continue due to three changes of policy by the new Italian government. It has closed the country’s ports to NGO rescue ships; agreed to send an extra 10 motor launches and two ships, dinghies, equipment, and vehicles to help Libyan coastguard; and extended the search and rescue area for which the Libyan coastguard is responsible, therefore reducing the area in which the NGOs and EU ships have responsibility.

The EU has also reinforced its direction to the NGOs to obey the orders of the Libyan coastguard. For the first time in months, no NGO ship is operating in the Mediterranean. Two NGO vessels docked in Malta have been detained by the authorities and prevented from leaving to carry out operations.

The Italian deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, a member of the Five Star Movement, urged the deaths not to be used to dispute the government’s tough new migration policy, saying: “We will supply motor launches to Libya because the healthiest thing is that the Libyans should carry out the rescues, and take [the migrants] back to the Libyan coast.”

The Italian policy changes have increased the numbers put in the Libyan detention camps that have been widely criticised by human rights groups and by UN agencies.

Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister and driving force behind the policy, has denied claims that the Libyan detention camps are overcrowded prisons, saying he has visited a detention centre there and found the conditions acceptable.

But the Belbeisi said: “Migrants returned by the coastguard should not automatically be transferred to detention. We are deeply concerned that the detention centres will yet again be overcrowded and that living conditions will deteriorate with the recent influx of migrants.”

The UN says up to 10,000 people are being held in detention camps, but the figures are estimates.

At a briefing on Monday, the European commission spokeswoman said ships and boats flying the European flag and making rescues at sea could not bring migrants back to Libya.

“It is against our values, international law and European law, “ Natasha Bertaud said. “We are well aware of the inhumane situation for many migrants in Libya. The UN is working to improve their conditions and there is an emergency transit mechanism to evacuate these people from Libya.

The IOM director-general, William Lacy Swing, will return to Tripoli this week to see first hand the conditions rescued migrants face and those returned to shore by the coastguard.

The overall numbers reaching Italy are still below last year, presenting the Italian populist government primarily with a problem of dealing with a backlog of more than 500,000 people whose asylum cases have not been processed.

So far, the EU’s main proposal to prevent migrants reaching Europe – setting up asylum processing centres outside Europe – has been rejected by leaders in Albania, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia. But the EU has yet to apply any serious pressure on these states that are heavily dependent on EU aid.