The COVID-19 epidemic cannot justify leaving migrants to drown or returning them to risk abuse in Libya, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said on Thursday.
According to the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) Libya office, Mijatovic’s comments came a day after some 51 rescued migrants were returned to Libya in spite of being rescued in Malta’s search and rescue zone by a commercial ship.
“The 51 were apparently from a boat reported missing days earlier in the Maltese search and rescue zone,’’ the IOM said.
The IOM said that five bodies were also retrieved and another seven people were said to be missing.
“All the rescuees were sent to detention centres,’’ the IOM said.
The UN and rights groups have warned that migrants detained in Libya risk torture, sexual abuse and human trafficking.
Malta and Italy recently declared their ports unsafe due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Malta has said that it cannot guarantee resources to assist migrants in distress at sea.
The moves have also left more than 140 rescued migrants stranded for more than 10 days aboard the German-flagged charity rescue ship Alan Kurdi.
“Receiving and assisting those rescued at sea, whilst also protecting public health is a huge challenge at this difficult time,” Mijatovic acknowledged.
She, however, said that Italy and Malta should not be left to face the issue alone.
“The COVID-19 crisis cannot justify knowingly abandoning people to drown, leaving rescued migrants stranded at sea for days, or seeing them effectively returned to Libya where they are exposed to grave human rights violations,” she said.