GENEVA - The International Organization for Migration says most of the more than 1,000 migrants who fled escalating violence and deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Libya over the past two weeks have returned to Libyan shores and been sent to abusive detention centers.
The International Organization for Migration says heavy fighting in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, between government forces and those loyal to rebel leader Khalifa Haftar prompted the sudden exodus.
IOM spokeswoman Safa Msehli says most of the migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean toward Italy are from west and central Africa. She says 136 women and 85 children are among those intercepted at sea and returned to Libya.
"The majority of those people departing or fleeing violence and abuse in Libya have been actually returned to the very city that is now witnessing some of the heaviest clashes. Most of the returns are being carried out by the Libyan coast guard. However, there was one return on Saturday that was carried out via commercial ship," Msehli said.
Conditions of detention in Libya have been condemned by international agencies. The IOM, the U.N. refugee agency and others have documented serious cases of abuse, disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of violence and deprivation.
The sudden flight of migrants since Jan. 1 contrasts markedly with the situation during the same period last year. At that time, the IOM says 23 bodies were recovered by the coast guard and no migrants were returned to Libya.
Msehli said the current, sudden increase in departures is especially alarming given the very limited search and rescue capacity on the Mediterranean. She told VOA all civilians in Tripoli and surrounding areas are at risk from the increasing hostilities.
"Out of these civilians, there are at least 110,000 migrants in urban areas and up to 4,000 people in detention. The security situation is impacting the lives of all civilians, including migrants and especially those that are detained," Msehli said.
The IOM is calling for Libya's detention system to be dismantled and for migrants held to be released in an orderly fashion. It says a solution must be found to safeguard the lives and alleviate the suffering of thousands of men, women, and children who are being held in inhumane conditions.