An international charity Wednesday urged Libyan authorities to release over 200 Europe-bound migrant children intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea and returned to detention centers in the conflict-stricken country this year.
Most of the children are African and between 12 and 15 years old, and some are infants, said the International Rescue Committee. Over 50 of the children have disabilities or are children at risk because their caregivers are sick, it said.
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The children, the majority of them Somalian, Eritrean and Sudanese, are at risk not only because of the pandemic, but also because of violence and abuse, the charity said.
Libya has emerged as a major transit point for African and Arab migrants fleeing war and poverty for a better life in Europe. The trend developed amid years of chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Most migrants in Libya attempt to make the perilous journey to European shores in ill-equipped and unsafe rubber boats. Over 20,000 migrants died since 2014 while trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to the U.N. migration agency.
Thousands have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya. They are often left at the mercy of brutal armed groups or confined in squalid and overcrowded detention centers that lack adequate food and water, according to rights groups.
“Every day, they know they could be abducted, detained and held for ransom. Every day, they struggle to earn a living to make ends meet,” said Tom Garofalo, director of the International Rescue Committee in Libya.
The U.N. said Libyan authorities in the western town of Khoms on Monday shot and killed three Sudanese migrants who tried to escape after they returned to shore. The dead were among over 70 Europe-bound migrants who were intercepted off Libya, including 15 children.