“If we do not intervene soon, there will be a sea of blood,” said Carlotta Sami, the UNHCR spokeswoman, in Italy on Sunday, warning that there has been a “sharp increase” in refugees’ Europe-bound departure from North African countries, particularly conflict-wracked Libya.
She also said that the risk of migrants and refugees becoming shipwrecked in the Mediterranean and dying at sea was the highest it had ever been due to the insufficient number of NGO rescue ships, noting that the persisting conflict and chaos in Libya increasing departures at an alarming rate.
Thousands of people in Libya are now preparing to leave the war-ravaged and flood-hit country by boats completely unfit to cross the Mediterranean. But without rescue ships, the number of shipwrecks is likely to rise dramatically, the UN warns.
Aid groups say that nearly 700 people have ventured into the sea in the recent days, only 5 percent of whom were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to detention centers.
Forty percent arrived in Malta, an archipelago in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, and 11 percent in Italy. It is not yet known what happened to the others.
A study by the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), an Italian thinktank, based on interior ministry figures, revealed that one in eight people departing from Libya and in an attempt to reach the European shores between January and April had died en route. Anti-refugee policies enforced by the Maltese and Italian governments have driven the sharp decrease in rescue missions.
Criminalized by authorities, deflagged, struck by seizures and judicial probes that have so far proved groundless, NGOs have been gradually forced to leave the central Mediterranean. Of the 10 NGO rescue ships that were actively present in the Mediterranean, only one – operated by the German organization SeaWatch – remains. Figures by the UN refugee agency show that there are around 60,000 asylum seekers in Libya. Over the past two months, 90,500 Libyans have been displaced by the violence in and around capital Tripoli. Aid groups report thousands of asylum seekers are behind bars in detention centers and subjected to abuse and torture.
Italy, under its hardline anti-immigration government, cut the number of arrivals dramatically last year to 23,371, about a fifth of the number who arrived in 2017 when 119,369 crossed from Libya.