Nearly 1,000 migrants have been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard in recent days, bringing the total number of people returned to Libya this year to around 5,000.
Over the past decade, Libya has become a key embarkation point for migrants from Africa and the Middle East to begin the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean, the deadliest migration route in the world.
Since 2014, the Missing Migrants Project has recorded over 21,000 deaths in the Mediterranean, though the actual number is thought to be far higher. Between 2014 and 2018, about 12 thousand people who drowned were never found.
Efforts to protect the lives of refugees crossing the central Mediterranean have become comprehensively weakened following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s Associate Director for the Europe and Central Asia Division, said that:
“EU institutions and states have progressively abdicated responsibility for search and rescue in these treacherous waters. The EU naval mission deliberately patrols away from areas where it might encounter boats in distress.”
This abdication of responsibility often means that poorly equipped commercial vessels and the Libyan coast guard bear much of the responsibility for migrants making the crossing.
The EU maintains support for Libyan interceptions and returns despite authorities having been repeatedly condemned for their hand in widespread human rights abuses in detention facilities.
Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the UN migrant agency, IOM, said that:
“It is shameful that vulnerable people and victims of abuse should be made to suffer further by States’ failure to protect them.”
In September 2020, Amnesty International released a report which outlined the “vicious cycle of cruelty” suffered by migrants trapped in Libya.
The report, based on testimonies from over 30 individuals, found that migrants were often subjected to: “unlawful killings; enforced disappearances; torture and other ill-treatment; rape and other sexual violence; arbitrary detention; and forced labour and exploitation at the hands of government authorities or militia groups”
Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said that:
“Given the Libyan authorities’ consistent failure to address long-standing patterns of abuse against refugees and migrants – including by state officials and affiliated militias – the EU and its member states must completely reconsider their co-operation with the Libyan authorities.”
Another report, released earlier this month by the Council of Europe, once again urged European countries to revise destructive migration policies which it says are responsible for “thousands of avoidable deaths each year”. The report criticised member states’ overdependence on the Libyan coast guard, citing clear evidence of serious human rights risks as a result of “continued and enhanced co-operation with Libya”.
The EU must prioritise the protection of human rights over their determination to reduce migration to the continent. Support for the Libyan coast guard must be suspended, with the provision of safe and legal routes expanded. The EU has an obligation, under international law, to protect refugees and migrants from both the abuse in Libya and the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.