By NOHA ELHENNAWY
CAIRO (AP) — Over 270 Europe-bound migrants were rescued by a commercial ship near Libya’s Mediterranean shores and handed over to the Libyan coast guard who sent them to detention centers, the U.N. migration and refugee agencies said.
The migrants were rescued in international waters on Monday by the Vos Triton, sailing under the flag of Gibraltar, said the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR in a joint statement Wednesday evening.
A day later, they were returned by the Libyan coast guard to the Tripoli port, from where they were taken into detention by Libyan authorities, the statement added.
“The two organizations reiterate that no one should be returned to Libya after being rescued at sea. Under international maritime law, rescued individuals should be disembarked at a place of safety,” said the agencies, adding that Libya cannot be considered “a safe place.”
The vessel’s owners did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For almost a decade, war-torn Libya has been the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East and aspiring to settle in Europe. Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous central Mediterranean route.
In recent years, the EU has partnered with Libya’s coast guard and other local groups to stem such dangerous sea crossings. Rights groups, however, say those policies leave migrants at the mercy of either the sea or Libya’s armed groups, with many ending up confined in squalid detention centers rife with abuses.
Rescue groups have also decried the handover of migrants to the Libyan authorities, accusing the merchant vessel of committing “illegal pushback” — a practice where migrants are denied the right to apply for international protection.
The German humanitarian group Sea-Watch tweeted that the migrants were eventually transferred against their will from the Vos Triton to a Libyan patrol boat.
On Monday, aid group Alarm Phone tweeted that it had received a distress call from 200 people aboard a wooden boat in international waters in the Central Mediterranean. The group said that that their engine was broken and that attempts to contact the Libyan coast guard had failed. Passengers were eventually rescued by Vos Triton, added the group.
So far this year, more than 13,000 migrants were returned to Libyan detention centers and hundreds have perished at sea, said both agencies.
“IOM and UNHCR call for an end to arbitrary detention in Libya through the establishment of a judicial review process, and advocate for alternatives to detention starting with the immediate release of the most vulnerable,” read the statement.
The U.N. agencies urged governments to grant merchant vessels rescuing people in distress “swift permission” for disembarkation in safe ports.