Migrants await rescue in the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands have already made the dangerous trek this month and more than 200 have died. Photo by Giuseppe Lami/EPA-EFE
Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The United Nations said Tuesday it's alarmed by shippers violating international law by returning migrants at sea to Libya, where they face abuse and torture.
In the past few days, migrants escaping persecution in Libya have been involved in two shipwrecks and other incidents that resulted in drownings. More than 200 people have died making the crossing this month and more than 4,500 migrants have arrived in Europe from Africa in the first 16 days of 2019, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Tuesday.
The U.N. refugee agency said it's watching the situation "with increasing alarm."
"Of particular concern to us at present is the fate of some 144 rescued refugees and migrants rescued on Jan. 20 by a merchant vessel, the Lady Sham, who last night disembarked in Misrata, Libya under instructions from the Tripoli Rescue and Coordination Center," the UNHCR said Tuesday. "In Libya's current context, where outbreaks of violence and widespread human rights violations prevail, no rescued refugees and migrants should be returned there."
UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said the migrants face "bitter cold and great danger."
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini countered that returning them to Libya is the right thing to do.
"You save them, as the Libyan coast guard did, and take them back," Savini said. "In that way, people will stop paying human traffickers for a trip that has no future, because it ends in death or with an existence on Italy's streets."
The UNHCR is calling on nations to rescue migrants and take them to a safe place, while also lifting roadblocks for non-governmental organizations so they can increase their efforts.
"People who don't have a valid claim to asylum or other forms of international protection must then swiftly be helped to return home," the UNHCR said. "Politicians must stop using human-beings for political point-scoring, and to instead address this as a humanitarian issue, with saving lives the priority. Reducing arrivals cannot be the only barometer for success when people are drowning on Europe's doorstep."
Spain and Malta have agreed to take in some refugees after Italy refused.