By Othman Belbeisi
A few times a week, boats dangerously over-packed with hundreds of scared but hopeful young people leave Libya for Europe.
Some of these smuggler-run, barely sea-worthy vessels make it to their destination, predominantly Italy or Spain, where their passengers face uncertainty.
Others tragically succumb to the Mediterranean Sea due to the bad condition of both sea and boat. We have seen the Central Mediterranean route become more and more dangerous with a higher rate of people dying in proportion to those attempting the journey in 2018 compared with 2017.
Saving lives must be at the core of any policy related to migration through the Mediterranean and for us, operating on the ground in Libya, it is our top priority.
And then there are the boats that are intercepted or rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard, which returns them to Libyan shores.
Alerted by the Coast Guard, we immediately deploy a team to provide humanitarian assistance to the migrants. Our doctors regularly conduct health screenings and find many migrants require emergency medical care.
We also often offer psychosocial first aid and help with family tracing at the disembarkation points.
The groups of returned migrants are taken by the Libyan Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) to an official migrant detention centre as the country’s policies currently criminalise irregular migration.
IOM is one of a few humanitarian organisations providing aid inside the detention centres, as well as at the points of disembarkation.
We also offer voluntary humanitarian return to and reintegration support in the migrants’ countries of origin, helping thousands of people start a new life back home.
The practice of automatically taking people from the water to detention is unacceptable. IOM unequivocally disagrees with holding migrants in detention, especially women and children. No one should have their freedom and dignity taken from them.
We constantly advocate with the government of Libya for the closure of these centres and have been successful in helping some children and victims of trafficking be released to safe accommodation.
Alternatives to detention like safe spaces and open centres must be established, and those who perpetrate abuse against migrants in detention must be held accountable.
There are four practical solutions we see, which could be implemented right away, to improve the situation for migrants returned to Libyan shore. This is, of course, not to say that there are not more.
The first is to improve the data collection capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard. We have supported the Coast Guard in establishing a registration unit within their directorate structure, which records number of migrants, their nationalities, ages and health condition during return operations.
This data is an essential prerequisite for protecting migrants against ill treatment, grave human rights violations, deportation and refoulment. It is a start but needs to be properly implemented at disembarkation points.
The second is to improve infrastructure for screening returned migrants, as well as migrant reception facilities along the coast to ensure that they get the assistance that they need.
The third is to allow the reopening of IOM’s shelter for vulnerable migrants, which closed in 2011.
This would be a step towards greater protection of migrants in Libya and similar open style shelters could be developed, while the migrant detention centres are phased out with children and victims of trafficking given priority.
We know that humanitarian aid will never solve migration challenges in Libya or on its coast. Emergency interventions must be coupled with sustainable projects, which include support to local Libyan communities.
So the fourth suggested solution is that national migration management structures must be enhanced in a way that is beneficial to migrants and Libyans alike, while respecting human rights and dignity of all.
This includes comprehensive legislation on counter trafficking. Unfortunately, globally, we continue to see migrants being criminalised and detained, while smugglers remain free.
These are not just suggestions for Libya, they are calls for states all along the route to provide more support.
While Libya can contribute to the solution, the country cannot address these issues alone – it is a regional, if not global, responsibility.
Othman Belbeisi is the International Organization for Migration’s Chief of Mission in Libya.