Libya: IRC seeks testing of migrants to curtail surge in Covid-19 cases

by Muizat Hameed

The International Rescue Committee has warned that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers intercepted at sea and returned to Libya must be provided with COVID-19 testing.

While disclosing this on Friday July 10, 2020, IRC stated that the testing would enable the migrants to access the care they need.

Since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Libya on March 25, over 3,100 people have been brought back to Libya’s shores – and not a single one has been tested for the disease.

Given that 28 migrants who left Libya for Italy in June tested positive upon arrival in Sicily, the IRC is extremely concerned about this gap in the country’s COVID-19 response.

IRC further stressed that it was necessary to rapidly scale-up testing at both at Libya’s disembarkation points and across the country in order to ensure all those in need of support are able to receive it.

The rescue committee is supporting the Libyan COVID-19 response with training of front-line health workers and the provision of additional isolation units.

“When people are brought back from sea, we’re given very limited time to support them,” said Tom Garofalo, Country Director for the IRC in Libya.

He added that “Our health and protection teams are allowed only to provide people with emergency medical care and a few basic supplies before they are taken away either to detention centres or released in towns and cities.

“Although we try to carry out basic temperature checks, sometimes even this simple step is not allowed.

“The lack of something so basic – let alone the ability to carry out proper testing – is a real cause for concern because it means there is a risk that the disease is being spread in the detention centres and in communities, and is going undetected.”

Garofalo continued that “There are thousands of people being held in detention centres and the conditions they are living in are horrific. They’re overcrowded and often completely unsanitary.

“People can neither practice social distancing there nor carry out regular handwashing. Many are in poor health as it is so, if one person gets the disease – soon, everyone will have it.

“For those who are free to go back to their communities, the situation isn’t much better. Very few have access to healthcare because they are too afraid to leave their homes or are simply denied access.”

“They live under constant threats: of robbery, of abduction and of abuse – the very conditions that drove them to try and reach Europe in the first place.

“If they become ill, many will not seek treatment and even those who do, have very few options available to them because, at best, only six per cent of health facilities in the country are fully functioning.

“To protect as many people as possible, we urgently need to see the response scaled up – and one of the key expansions that needs to happen is testing of those brought back from sea,” he concluded

In Libya, the National Centre for Disease Control is responsible for COVID-19 testing but the organisation has been present to check temperatures at only a handful of disembarkations since March.

This reveals a larger scale problem: that testing is scarce and largely unavailable across the country, especially in the South.

The IRC is calling for an immediate end to arbitrary detention and for those brought back from sea to receive all necessary health care, and for referrals to be made for those who need further care or specialized services.

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