The UN human rights office OHCHR, called on Friday for urgent action to address the “unimaginable horrors” faced by migrants attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea in search of safety in Europe.
OHCHR highlighted what it called a “cycle of violence” whereby people faced deprivation and abuse in Libya, only to be left to drift “for days at sea”. Often, their boats were intercepted dangerously by the authorities and returned to Libya, the UN rights office said, noting that migrants then faced arbitrary detention, torture and other serious human rights violations.
And the situation has become even more acute amid the COVID-19 pandemic, OHCHR continued in its statement, as humanitarian search and rescue vessels have been prevented from heading out to sea, while there is also a lack of access by civil society groups that help migrants.
“What is happening to migrants…is the result of a failed system of migration governance…marked by a lack of solidarity forcing frontline States…to bear the brunt of the responsibility”, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
Despite the lack of sufficient safe and regular migration channels, migrants continue to take the precarious sea journey, often multiple times – encountering danger and suffering.
Arbitrary detention, torture, trafficking, sexual abuse, forced labour and other serious human rights violations were some of the horrors that migrants in Libya described.
And many reported being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, including having their boats rammed or shot at, causing vessels to capsize or people to desperately jump into the water.
While some reports reflected that commercial vessels did not come to their assistance, others affirmed that commercial ships picked them up only to return the individuals to detention centres in Libya.
OHCHR pointed out that if true, “these are serious allegations of failure to assist people in distress at sea and possible coordinated push-backs that should be duly investigated”.
Mission to Malta
The call followed a week-long UN rights mission to Malta that engaged Government officials, UN partners, migrant community leaders, civil society organizations, speaking to 76 migrants from 25 different countries.
Some migrants there explained that they had been detained for several months, with only one change of clothing and little access to daylight, clean water and sanitation.
They also reported severe overcrowding, poor living conditions and limited contact with the outside world, including lawyers and civil society organizations.
“You’re in jail in Libya and now you come to Europe and prison again”, one migrant testified.
“The pressures on the reception system in Malta have long been known but the pandemic has clearly made an already difficult situation worse”, said Ms. Bachelet.
Despite COVID-19 challenges, “human rights must always be upheld and those who are confined, out of sight as it were, must not be forgotten”, she continued, appealing for European Union States to adopt “a principled approach to migration” and tackle “the shocking conditions” faced by migrants in Libya, at sea, and often when they finally reach Europe, and supposed safety.