A WORD FROM THE CHIEF OF MISSION
Over the past few months, we have seen many developments in Libya in relation to an ongoing situation of prolonged insecurity and the impact of COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these developments warrant reflection.
Life for migrants in Libya has become increasingly difficult since the identification of the first COVID-19 case in late March and the ongoing intense fighting in and around Tripoli. Many already vulnerable migrants continue to experience a further deterioration in living conditions and now face the added challenge of movement restrictions. Most have limited or no access to health care due to their legal status and discrimination. The downturn in economic activity has affected the job market; many migrants, who are typically employed in construction, trades, and agriculture have less or no work at all. This means that an increasing number are facing difficulties in covering the most basic of living costs related to food and housing. Less work and lower income also means fewer remittances; a hardship that will increasingly be felt in countries of origin.
In response, IOM is undertaking a food security assessment in migrant communities to assess increasing humanitarian needs, in coordination with WFP and the food security sector partners. This assessment will guide operations and inform the humanitarian and international community of needs on the ground.
More Europe-bound boats have departed from Libya in April than in March. Due to mounting concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the Maltese and Italian governments introduced further restrictions on disembarkation in their ports. Nonetheless, migrants continue to leave Libyan shores, driven by catastrophic conditions in the country. During the month of April, 395 migrants were returned to Libyan shores by the Libyan Coast Guard and a commercial vessel.
Heavy fighting around the Tripoli main port and COVID-19 preventative measures installed by Libyan authorities have led to delays and dangerous disembarkations in Tripoli. On 15 April, 51 migrants were rescued in the Maltese search and rescue zone by a Maltese fishing vessel and returned to Libya. Five migrants died due to dehydration and lack of food while seven were reported missing at sea, after rescue was delayed for four days. Some migrants were released, some escaped, and others were taken to detention centres that are not under the authority of the Libyan Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM). These migrants remain unaccounted for and this is cause for serious concern. IOM continues to advocate against the return of migrants to Libya as it cannot be considered a safe port.
The rate of departure from Libya is determined by many different factors. Smugglers take advantage of the security situation and improved weather conditions to send desperate people on these perilous journeys. Safety, security and stability in Libya are key elements to ensure a reduction in migrants’ departures from the Libyan coasts and to pave the way for more comprehensive migration governance in Libya. Whether departures will increase again in coming months remains to be seen. Much will depend on these three factors.
In April, there was also mass migrant movement at the land borders. More than 2,500 migrants were deported from Libya to Niger, Sudan, Chad and Egypt. Over 1,250 Tunisian migrant workers trying to return to Tunisia were stranded at the Ras Ajdir border crossing point for over two weeks. IOM estimates that there are at least 6,000 Tunisians in Libya.
We continue to advocate for a humanitarian management of borders that takes into account the vulnerabilities and realities of migrants; and respects human rights, public health concerns and dignity.
We have adapted to ensure that our activities on the ground continue, while also prioritizing the safety of our staff and the people we are assisting, amid restrictions and the risk of COVID-19. Our personnel are our most valuable asset and we take the opportunity here to share their experiences and contribution, through a new feature “Spotlight from the Field”.