Libya transfers migrants rescued from year's worst shipwreck back to bombed detention centre

The Tajoura detention centre, located near the front lines of fighting between Libyan factions, was hit by an airstrike that killed more than 50 people on July 3   – REUTERS

Libyan authorities on Friday transferred dozens of migrants rescued from this year’s worst Mediterranean shipwreck to a detention centre near Tripoli that was hit by an airstrike earlier this month, ignoring protests from the United Nations.  

The much-criticised move came as Libya’s coastguard recovered scores of bodies in ongoing search operations, the day after up to 150 people, including women and children, were feared drowned when their boats capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.

A top UN official described Thursday’s shipwreck as “the worst Mediterranean tragedy” so far this year.

The Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in the Libyan capital said that up to 350 migrants were onboard the boats that capsized on Thursday off the town of Khoms, around 75 miles east of Tripoli. The migrants include nationals from Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan and Libya, the agency said.

Libyan officials said more than 130 migrants have been rescued since Thursday.

Those not hospitalised were transferred to different detention centres, including Tajoura, located near the front lines of the fighting between rival Libyan factions. 

One of the survivors, from Eritrea, said most of the migrants on his boat were women, he said, and most of them drowned.

The Tajoura detention centre was hit by an airstrike on July 3 that killed more than 50 people and raised new concerns over the treatment of migrants in Libya.

Charlie Yaxley, a UNHCR spokesman, objected on Thursday to transfers to Tajoura, saying, “this has to stop” and that the place should be closed.

“Our joint-call to close Tajoura detention center does not seem to be heard. This is putting intentionally the life of these people at risk,” Vincent Cochetel, the refugee agency’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean tweeted on Friday.

The UN migration agency said later on Friday that the 84 migrants were turned back from the detention centre, and that they were instead being “released gradually” into the town of Tajoura.

Amnesty International called on EU leaders to reverse their decision to halt migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. The rights group appealed to European nations to change “their approach to a humane one which saves lives and doesn’t condemn those who survive to detention in Libya”. 

The European Union has partnered with conflict-torn Libya to prevent migrants from making the maritime journey  to Europe. Rights groups say those efforts have left migrants at the mercy of brutal armed groups or confined in squalid detention centres that lack adequate food and water.