At least 78 migrants fleeing war-torn Libya for Europe remain stuck at sea without a designated port to dock at, the U.N. migration agency said Monday.
Libya has emerged as a major transit point for African and Arab migrants fleeing conflict and poverty to Europe, since the ouster of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, after which two seats of power emerged in Libya: warlord Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya, supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which enjoys U.N. and international recognition.
The migrants fled Libya three days ago and were rescued by a merchant vessel on Sunday in the Mediterranean Sea, said Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The vessel carrying the migrants has still not received permission to dock at any port, Msehli said. She called on the European Union to establish a clear and safe disembarkation mechanism for people recused in the Mediterranean.
The boat was the fourth carrying migrants to depart from Libya in less than a week, the IOM said. Along with the stranded vessel, one boat carrying 57 people reached the harbor of the small island nation of Malta, where it was quarantined because of the coronavirus pandemic, while a second boat with 68 migrants arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa and the third vessel was intercepted and returned to Libya with all 51 aboard.
Most migrants leaving Libya's coasts make the perilous journey in ill-equipped and unsafe rubber boats. The IOM's estimated death toll earlier this month among migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean passed the “grim milestone” of 20,000 deaths since 2014.
In recent years, the European Union has partnered with the Libyan coast guard and other local forces to stop the flow of migrants.
Rights groups say those efforts have left migrants at the mercy of brutal armed groups or confined to squalid and overcrowded detention centers that lack adequate food and water.
The EU agreed earlier this year to end an anti-migrant smuggling operation involving only surveillance aircraft. The bloc will instead concentrate on trying to enforce a widely flouted U.N. arms embargo that’s considered key to winding down Libya’s relentless civil war.
The new operation, dubbed "Irini" (the Greek word for peace), was launched last week and will also gather information about illegal fuel and oil smuggling from Libya and help build up the Libyan coast guard, including by training its personnel.