Debris covers the ground after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, Wednesday, July 3, 2019.
FILE - Debris covers the ground after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, July 3, 2019.

GENEVA - The U.N. refugee and U.N. migration agencies have welcomed a decision by European states to end the arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants in Libya.  During a meeting Monday in Paris, interior and foreign ministers from several European countries also committed to preventing loss of life on the Mediterranean Sea.

The ministerial meeting was triggered by the July 5 bombing of the Tajoura detention center on the outskirts of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.  The deadly airstrike killed 53 refugees and migrants, and it injured more than 130 others. Most were from sub-Saharan Africa.

FILE - Blood stains are seen at a detention center for mainly African migrants that was hit by an airstrike in the Tajoura suburb of Tripoli, Libya, July 3, 2019.

The U.N. refugee agency says the agreement hammered out by the European states is a positive first step.  But it says there is a long way to go before this situation is resolved.

The UNHCR says refugees and migrants in detention are at risk of abuse, maltreatment and even death, as the events in Tajoura show.  Agency spokesman Charlie Yaxley says no one should be returned to detention centers in Libya after being intercepted or rescued at sea.  

“At the moment, most of the refugees and migrants who are brought back to Libya are done so after being rescued or intercepted by the Libyan coastguard," he said.  "While that arbitrary detention of people after being rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard continues, then conditionality should be put for any state support for the coastguard until that stops.”  

Yaxley says the UNHCR is concerned that search and rescue operations are increasingly left to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or commercial vessels.  He says that needs to change.  He tells VOA an EU state search-and-rescue operation, similar to programs seen in recent years, is needed.

“In terms of the NGOs, we’ve called on Italy to reconsider their latest proposals that would in effect criminalize search and rescue operations," he said. "Saving lives in distress at sea has been a pillar of the law of the sea for centuries. It is a moral obligation, but also a fundamental legal obligation under international maritime law.”

In late June, the German captain of a ship carrying 53 rescued migrants was arrested at the Italian port of Lampedusa. Italy’s right-wing Interior minister, Matteo Salvini, had barred her from docking. After drifting at sea for nearly two weeks under increasingly desperate conditions, she decided to disobey the minister’s orders.  A judge later overturned the arrest, saying she had acted to save lives.

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