Following the migrant crisis which engulfed Southern Europe and the Mediterranean region in 2014-15, tensions between states affected and migrants have remained high. In recent years Libya has become the focus of said tensions, and the ongoing conflict in Libya and the spread of COVID-19 may together create the conditions necessary to instigate a second migrant crisis.
Currently the International Organisation of Migration reports that in excess of 200,000 people have been displaced in Libya since the most recent conflict between the UN-acknowledged Government of National Accord, and the Libyan National Army (which has a powerbase in Benghazi) emerged a year ago. 150,000 of these displaced people are situated within Tripoli and its environs, along the Western coastline of Libya where most attempted migrant vessels crossings of the Mediterranean launch from.
Migrant based incidents continue to occur in Libyan waters. On 10 Apr 20 the Libyan coastguard rescued 280 migrants in distress. However unlike in recent years, Libya has now banned migrants from disembarking back on Libyan soil, a decision taken due to worries that a higher number of migrants on Libyan shores would exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. Italy has also begun to close its ports to migrants in response to the threat of COVID-19, and also due to the strain its healthcare system is now under. On 12 Apr 20 Italy ordered a German rescue vessel with 156 migrants on board to transfer the migrants to another vessel where they could be tested and quarantined. As worries about the situation escalating spread, Malta has asked the EU for a €100 million EU aid package to avert what it has referred to as a ‘humanitarian disaster’ caused by increased migrants leaving Libya.
The situation in the Mediterranean has been exacerbated by the winding down in recent months of the EU Operation Sophia, which coordinated migrant rescue activities. The EU’s new initiative, Operation Irini, is focused upon enforcing a UN arms embargo, and will not interact with migrant vessels.
It is likely that the intensifying conflict in Tripoli, and the increased spread of COVID-19 within Libya will continue to exacerbate the ‘push’ factors which will encourage migrants to attempt a Mediterranean crossing. Currently 35 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Libya, however this number is set to rise exponentially, especially when the virus becomes established within migrant detention camps, which have terrible sanitation conditions.
Increased numbers of migrants leaving Libyan shores, coupled with the refusal of Libya to allow rescued migrants to return to Libya, and Italy not allowing migrants to disembark, could cause a potential humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean, where migrants fleeing a pandemic and conflict have nowhere to go. This will undoubtedly place an increased pressure on vessels operating in the region to come to the rescue of migrants, despite the potential lack of a port which will then accept said migrants. Whilst this crisis has so far not reached its peak, it is advised vessels become increasingly aware of what may occur in the Mediterranean within the next 12 months, and begin to adopt contingency measures to assist their ability to interact with migrants and/or migrant vessels if deemed necessary.