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Migrants Drown in Shipwreck off Libya Coast

Italian navy rescue asylum seekers by V. Futscher

Article by Paulina Montez,

In 2017, Italy and Libya signed a Memorandum of Understanding to enhance their cooperation with regard to immigration and border security. The agreement allows Libya’s Coast Guard to detain refugee boats in the Mediteranean Sea and return the refugees to Libyan detention centers. Human rights advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International have criticized the agreement. Activists disagree with the Libyan Coast Guard’s primary control of the Mediterranean waters, instead advocating for increased access by the nongovernmental rescue ships that previously monitored the Mediterranean. Amid the controversy, at least 16 migrants drowned off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea when their boat capsized on late September 24th.

The boat left from Zliten on Wednesday night to be found late Thursday night by Libyan fishermen. The fishermen helped pull 22 people from the water who came from various countries including Egypt, Syria, and Ghana. Commodore Masoud Abdal Samad noted that autumn is a difficult season, as increased winds exacerbate existing risks, making the journey potentially deadly. As Libya has become more well-known for migrants passing through in hopes of getting to Europe from Africa and the Middle East, smugglers more frequently put families in boats that travel through the dangerous water of the Mediterranean Sea. In mid-August, dozens of other migrants died in a shipwreck off Libya’s coast. The waters have taken over an estimated 20,000 lives since 2014.

Libyan authorities sent the survivors, who had been treated for their injuries, to the Zilten detention center. The routine procedure left many migrants in detention centers that are known for torture and abuse. Reports reveal the perils of disembarking in Libya as migrants have been trafficked or extorted by militiamen. Migrants are at risk of ending up in detention centers as a result of Libya’s increased control and the decrease in humanitarian ships that monitor the sea. Aquarius, a search and rescue ship that had saved thousands of migrants from drowning, was impounded by Italy under accusation of illegally dumping toxic waste. The charity behind Aquarius rejected the argument, claiming that Italy was attempting to criminalize humanitarian search-and-rescue missions. Prior to the accusation, Italy’s Interior Minister closed Italian ports, forcing the ship to sail for days with migrants on board. The Minister refused to accept more migrants from the ship, claiming ships like Aquarius only further encouraged people to migrate. Aquarius was the last rescue ship operating off of Libya when its operations ended in late 2018. Despite controversy surrounding Italy’s relationship with Libya, the Memorandum was renewed for an additional three years on February 2, 2020.

Migrants continue to lack a safe avenue for travel as conflict continues in Libya between the UN-backed Government of National Accord and Libyan National Army. Although military commander Khalifa Hifter was pushed out ending his assault for control over Libya’s capital, fighting among militias continues. In mid-September, two rival armed groups fought in the town of Tajoura, resulting in the death of at least two militia leaders and one fighter. Heavy weapons were used in a civilian-populated area which risked damage to property and put citizens in danger, but the cause of the battle remains unclear. Salah al-Namroush, Tripoli’s Defense Minister, threatened to use force against the militias if they continued and demanded for them to disband. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya has also voiced concern about the continued conflict’s effect on people in Libya.

World leaders such as France’s Macron have indicated interest in helping resolve the country’s conflict by gathering Libya’s neighbors to discuss long-term solutions. In February, the Italian Foreign Ministry sent Tripoli a proposal for changes to the Memorandum terms intended to increase support for migrants in Libya. Italy’s foreign minister also advocated in support of closing the Libyan detention centers and assisting voluntary returns from Libya to migrants’ countries of origin. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights urged Italy to commit to more significant action and to cease operations with the Libyan Coast Guard until Libya agrees to human rights compliance. Others urge for Italy and the European Union to look for long-term solutions in Libya by communicating with Libya's militias, including those who have reportedly committed human rights abuses. While Italy’s diplomats attempt to advocate for an end to the war, migrants continue to lack protection on their journey through Libya toward safety.


Paulina Montez is a J.D Candidate at UC Berkeley School of Law. She is interested in the intersection of international human rights law and criminal law.



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