The Libyan coast guard rescued 280 migrants in distress in the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday and diverted them to the shores of the North African country, only to have them banned from disembarking, the U.N. migration agency said.
The migrants, hungry and exhausted after 72 hours at sea, remained stuck on a crowded coast guard ship overnight after being denied entry to the capital, Tripoli. Heavy bombardment of the port area prevented them from stepping on land.
Fighting has engulfed Tripoli in recent months as eastern-based forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter have escalated their year-long siege.
Heavy shelling on Thursday killed one migrant worker and wounded six others from Nigeria and Ghana in Tripoli’s Tajoura neighborhood, according to health authorities in the U.N.-backed government. Shrapnel tore into one man’s leg, which had to be amputated. Hifter's forces continued to attack a major Tripoli hospital and coronavirus facility, damaging the warehouse for medical and protective supplies.
At Tripoli’s dangerous port, workers for the International Organization for Migration scrambled to hand out food and water to those on board the coast guard ship before a nightly curfew took effect because of the coronavirus.
“The situation is tragic,” said IOM's Libya chief of mission, Federico Soda. “The status quo cannot possibly continue.”
As the weather has warmed and the Libyan war has worsened, an increasing number of migrants have sought to make the perilous sea crossing to Europe, seemingly unconcerned by the coronavirus pandemic surging there.
More than 500 migrants set out from Libya this week, according to IOM. Around 150 of them were saved by an NGO boat and another 67 reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they entered a two-week quarantine because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
At least 70 others have been stranded at sea for five days awaiting rescue after drifting into Maltese territorial waters, according to Alarm Phone, a crisis hotline for migrants in distress in the Mediterranean. In their last plea to the watchdog before the line cut out, migrants reported that water was flooding the dinghy.
With an uptick in fighting driving migrants to the treacherous sea and the coronavirus prompting countries to close their borders, aid workers fear that many more people may drown or get captured by the Libyan coast guard and returned to detention centers rife with abuse.
Haroun, a 26-year-old South Sudanese migrant in Tripoli, who asked that only his first name be published for fear of reprisals, was intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard in 2017 and returned to a detention center, which was hit by a deadly airstrike last year.
“Of course I will try to go to Europe again,” he said by phone from a one-room apartment in the capital crammed with 14 other African migrants, where he hears shooting and shelling all night. “Living in Libya is impossible. That's all I know."
But many refugees are finding their paths blocked.
The major maritime rescue charities, such as Ocean Viking and Sea-Watch, have suspended operations because of the pandemic. Travel disruptions have forced the U.N. refugee and migration agencies to halt their resettlement flights for the most vulnerable people. The E.U.'s new naval mission to police the Libyan arms embargo appears designed to avoid migrant rescue trips. Italy, the nearest destination for asylum-seekers, this week banned foreign-flagged migrant rescue ships from docking in its ports, citing fears over the pandemic.
The decree came after Italy denied a request for docking by Alan Kurdi, a German-flagged rescue vessel, which pulled 150 migrants from the water and is still searching for a port that's willing to let them in.
“Given the desperation, we should not take it for granted that people won't continue to flee,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, a humanitarian affairs adviser for Doctors Without Borders, which operates the Ocean Viking rescue ship. “The biggest danger we’re facing now is that COVID-19 will be used to justify measures that are purely about migrant control."