IOM calls for action on 'unravelling' Libya, growing threat to thousands of migrants

The International Organization for Migration called for quick action to address the growing instability in Libya, which is forcing thousands to flee for their lives across the Mediterranean

Migrants arrive in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo after being rescued off the coast of Lampedusa on Sunday
Migrants arrive in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo after being rescued off the coast of Lampedusa on Sunday

The International Organization for Migration called on world governments to act swiftly, as escalating violence forces more migrants to risk their lives in stormy seas. Over 1,600 have been rescued from unseaworthy boats on the Mediterranean Sea since last Friday.

“This is a clear signal that the situation in Libya is unravelling. We also know this from the fact that Italy and several other nations have already evacuated their citizens from the country,” IOM Director General William Lacy Swing said on Monday. “We must stand ready to assist thousands of extremely vulnerable people who need our help,” he added.

IOM pointed to the rescue since Friday of over 1,600 migrants from multiple vessels, just days after some 330 adults and children were reported lost, presumed drowned, the previous weekend.

IOM staffers in Sicily and the island of Lampedusa are preparing this week to help the Italian authorities to care for the latest victims of criminal Libyan trafficking gangs, who reportedly sent at least a dozen unseaworthy inflatable vessels into a stormy Mediterranean starting last Tuesday.

IOM Italy Chief of Mission Federico Soda warned that he expects voyages like these will continue as Libya’s violence worsens.

“Migrants are being forced to travel on unseaworthy boats and in dire weather conditions,” he noted.  “Given these circumstances, the relatively few, small ships that we (Italy and its European partners) are currently using, are insufficient to rescue a large number of people fleeing Libya.”

IOM Italy reported Monday that approximately 1,650 survivors have been able to safely reach Italian shores, after being rescued and brought to the ports of Lampedusa, Augusta, Pozzallo, Porto Empedocle and Trapani. 

The organization said that the migrants were rescued starting Friday, 13 February, by the Italian Coast Guard, Italian navy ships, an Icelandic navy unit working in the framework of Triton, the EU’s coastal border patrol, and by a passing merchant ship. Most of the survivors are from Sub-Saharan Africa, although they include at least 200 Somali migrants.

Libya’s deepening chaos raises the stakes for Italy and all of Europe as officials across the continent debate the future of the EU’s border control policies.

Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum, in place from October 2013 until late last year, was responsible for the rescue of over 172,000 migrants sent out to sea by smuggling gangs in Africa. It has been replaced by an EU programme called Triton, which is administered by the EU’s Frontex border control agency.

“The current Triton patrols in the Mediterranean are clearly inadequate in the face of this situation,” said Swing. “It is necessary to establish immediately a rescue system on the high seas that can respond to this emergency effectively to save migrants off Libya’s coast.”