By Maria Mitri
Refugees are people displaced from their homes, civilians who flee only when conditions are so dire that even the unknown is considered safer. For Libyan migrants, the path to safety and refuge often entails the Central Mediterranean Migration Route, a name usually used in reference to the migration route from Libya to Italy. The Mediterranean sea is the most highly visible location of irregular migration with the end destination of Europe.
By boat, thousands of people every year cross the Mediterranean from northern Africa and Turkey in search of safe passage to Europe. Most refugees departing via this route hail from Libya, which serves as a migratory transit country and a destination for some migrants, with a smaller number of civilians leaving Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia, per IOM.
According to the Associated Press, human traffickers have exploited Libya’s status in the Central Mediterranean Migration Route and the fact that it shares borders with six nations. Migrants are smuggled into the country, packed into deficient and feeble boats, and sent into the Mediterranean Sea. Those who are found or rescued in transit and are returned to Libyan detention centers and face a gamut of abuses, including forced labor, beatings, rape, and other kinds of torture, as detention centers extort the families of migrants before allowing them to leave. Investigators commissioned by the United Nations have even classified the treatment of migrants in Libya as crimes against humanity, given the abuse faced by detainees, per Al Jazeera.
| "This year has seen an estimated 31,500 migrants intercepted and returned to Libya, in comparison to last year’s documented 11,900 migrants found and returned to Libya."
The Central Mediterranean Route was used by an average of 10,000 migrants between 2009 and 2010, but the next year saw a dramatic uptick with 62,692 arrivals by sea documented in Italy alone. As of 2014, data from the IOM suggests that more than 12,000 people have been lost on the Central Mediterranean Route with many shipwrecks being classified as invisible, meaning disappeared boats with no survivors. This has led to documented human remains found on Libyan shore not being traced back to any specific shipwreck.
In 2021 alone, an estimated 1,500 refugees have drowned in various boat accidents while on the Central Mediterranean Route. Additionally, in just this year, an estimated 1,115 people have either gone missing or lost their lives on the Central Mediterranean Route. As gathered by ReliefWeb, there has been a big jump in migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean Route in 2021, with 80,680 attempted crossings this year compared with 62,799 in 2020.
Most recently, the bodies of 27 refugees, traveling to Europe by boat through the Central Mediterranean Route, were found on the coast of Libya. This tragedy follows one occurring just days before, in which two capsized boats led to the deaths of over 160 migrants. These most recent fatalities are just the latest in a historically dangerous migration route for those seeking better lives in Europe.
According to Al Jazeera, Most refugees are native to Africa and Asia and utilize Libya as a point of departure on the road to Europe. However, the European Union is attempting to decrease the number of refugees arriving in Europe and is collaborating with the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept fleeing refugees and return them to Libya.
The surge in attempted crossings in this year’s winter months follows a Libyan crackdown on migrants in Tripoli, and unprecedented migration pattern being intercepted along the route. Between December 12th and 18th of this year, 466 migrants were found at sea and returned to Libya. This year has seen an estimated 31,500 migrants intercepted and returned to Libya, in comparison to last year’s documented 11,900 migrants found and returned to Libya.
In September of 2021, NGO ships took to the Mediterranean Sea in efforts to assist migrants undertaking the Central Mediterranean Route, which is famously the world’s deadliest migratory sea route, per ReliefWeb. Other assistance programs include The Humanitarian Service Point @ Sea Operation, under the umbrella of the International Federation of the Red Cross’s three year action plan: “Humanitarian Assistance and Protection for People on the Move”. This action plan intends to provide support for the over 2 million people currently undertaking the process of migration, and over 500,000 people from host communities.
Despite existing programs and policies aimed at protecting and helping migrants on the Central Mediterranean Route, more needs to be done to protect their dignity, safety, and human rights. Migrants who travel through Libya and on this route face immense horrors, including dehydration, starvation, sexual abuse, and ill-treatment, as well as detention in some cases. In search for a better life, they risk their lives on overcrowded and ill-equipped boats, often without food, clean water, and proper medical care.
Interception of migrant boats on behalf of the Libyan Coast Guard is most often not a rescue, as Libyan forces often employ physical violence and racist language against the migrants and even forcibly collide with migrant boats, causing them too capsize. In May of 2o21, the UN explained that migrants in distress often do not receive help in time, and there is a degree of coordination between members of the European Union and the Libyan Coast Guard in the indirect forcing of migrants from international waters, into Libyan territory.
It is crucial that we provide these vulnerable migrants with more accessible, safe, and regular channels of migration, maintaining their dignity and protecting their human rights on every step of their path to safety. Many migrants who undertake the Central Mediterranean Route face continued uncertainty and oppression once they arrive in Europe, and boarding a ship bound for Italy often times promises continued suffering and distress instead of asylum.
Great reforms must be made to search and rescue missions so that people are saved and helped in a timely fashion and, instead of returned to abusive detention facilities, are provided a safe asylum.