The intensifying civil war in Libya as well as the COVID-19 health crisis has further worsened conditions for migrants being held in detention centres across the war-torn country, Libya expert Mark Micallef says.

Migrants pushed back to Libya over the past weeks, through a murky government-sanctioned operation using private fishing vessels, have ended up back in detention after having their hopes of finding a better life in Europe dashed.

Asked about the conditions that migrants face in such detention centres, Micallef said the country’s already crippled infrastructure had been further damaged by the escalating war, which has caused water and fuel shortages as well as power cuts in Tripoli.

Micallef leads an observatory specialising in human smuggling and trafficking in North Africa and the Sahel for the think tank Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. He has carried out regular fieldwork in Libya since 2011 and has authored several publications relating to smuggling and trafficking in the region.

The ones who are detained are facing worse conditions

The COVID-19 crisis has sparked fear in Libya, and healthcare systems that were already on their knees risk being further crippled.

“Detention centres have to be seen in this context. Given the escalating war in Tripoli, a number of detention centres have been evacuated. Even though detention centres are hosting fewer migrants, the ones who are detained are facing worse conditions,” said Micallef, a former Times of Malta news editor.

Malnutrition and illness was all too common in such centres.

The situation outside detention centres was often not much better, as restrictions placed on people’s movement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic left migrants more vulnerable and easy targets, exposing them to potential attacks from bandits and kidnappers.

“Some migrants would rather not leave a detention centre. At least they can find some certainty there.”

Many of the migrants outside the detention centres have been made jobless by the COVID-19 crisis, with no means to support themselves.

In urban areas, migrants sometimes live in warehouses that are “not fit for people”, Micallef says.

Prime Minister Robert Abela admitted on Friday his government had commissioned a boat to carry out what he characterised as a “rescue mission”, rather than a pushback.

The government has written to the European Commission, appealing for more European solidarity.

In an apparent softening of the hardline stance of sending migrants back to Libya, the government has now commissioned a tourist vessel normally used for short pleasure trips to hold 56 migrants rescued out at sea just outside of territorial waters.

The boat tracker is marked as ‘out of range’ on popular boat tracking website Marine Traffic.

A government spokesperson did not respond to questions about how long the migrants are going to be held on the boat.

Meanwhile, a cargo ship with a group of 78 migrants on board has become a political football, with both Italy and Malta refusing it entry.

The vessel had been en route from Sfax to Malta Freeport when it was diverted by the Malta rescue centre (Malta RCC) to search for and pick up the migrants. 

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