Migrants back in Libya after failing to reach Italy

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The United Nations criticised European countries for not allowing migrants to disembark at safe ports, as Libya’s coastguard said 500 migrants trying to reach Italy by inflatables were brought back to the North African country.

The 473 people found trying to cross the Mediterranean on inflatables in different rescue operations since Saturday included some rescued by a cargo ship, coastguard spokesman Ayoub Qassem said.

UN aid agencies earlier condemned the transfer of migrants to Libyan detention centres where they often face abuse, lack of medical care, rape or forced labour, according to 61-page December UN report.

“In Libya’s current context, where outbreaks of violence and widespread human rights violations prevail, no rescued refugees and migrants should be returned,” Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, told a briefing.

Qassem said the latest figures included more than 140 migrants rescued at sea by the ‘Lady Sham’ cargo ship, who the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said were brought to Misrata and then to a detention centre.

Four people with burns were taken to hospital and two others other died after 24 hours at sea, Qassem said. The migrants were from different sub-Saharan and Arab countries and included nine children and 25 women.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) denounced “politicking around sea rescues” by European states restricting aid groups from conducting missions. More than 200 drowned in January and 4,507 reached Europe by sea despite “bitter cold and great danger”, Yaxley said.

Libya’s western shores are the main departure point for thousands of migrants mainly from sub-Saharan countries fleeing poverty and conflict trying to reach Europe.

Since July 2017, smuggling networks inside Libya have been disrupted under an Italy-backed deal with local authorities in a former smuggling hub of Sabratha.

The coast guard stepped up patrols after receiving new boats from Italy as part of government efforts to stop migrants reaching Italian shores.

Migrants are bought to overcrowded detention centres formally under the control of the Interior Ministry but in reality run by armed groups.