Libya: Human rights at risk of being forgotten in the Mediterranean

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In 2016, 181,000 people arrived in Europe using the Central Mediterranean route. [Freedom House/Flickr]

EU plans to help Libya police its waters should be welcomed cautiously, but we should not ignore the causes of the migration crisis or the plight of those detained in Libya, writes Magdalena Mughrabi-Talhami.

Magdalena Mughrabi-Talhami is a researcher on North Africa for Amnesty International.

This week the EU announced plans on migration cooperation with Libya – extending its anti-smuggling naval mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, by a year and promising to train, build up and share information with the Libyan coastguard.

But by attempting to enlist Libya as a gatekeeper to help keep refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants out of Europe, the EU and member states also risk being complicit in the abuse and unlawful detention in horrible conditions of thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers intercepted at sea.

Any migration cooperation with Libya must take into account the reality on the ground in the country which is still mired in armed conflict and where the authorities are ill-fitted to safeguard the rights of vulnerable people.

According to information available to Amnesty International, in most cases, foreign nationals rescued or intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard end up indefinitely detained in sub-standard immigration detention centres which lack basic necessities, including washing and sanitary facilities, as well as medical care.

Torture, ill-treatment and exploitation of detainees in these centres is widespread. Since 2011, Amnesty International has collected scores of testimonies from detainees reporting beatings with wooden sticks, hoses and rifle butts, as well as others speaking of electric shocks and being shot at with rifles. Migrant women and refugees also suffer sexual harassment and violence.

Those detained often stay in centres for months without access to their families, lawyers or judges and are unable to challenge their detention or access protection given Libya’s lack of any national asylum law or system. The UN High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) ability to provide protection has been reduced even further since the withdrawal of its international staff in 2014.

Immigration detention centres are nominally managed by the Department for Combating Irregular Migration. But in practice they are often controlled by members of armed groups over which Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), recently established after lengthy UN-brokered peace talks, has yet to establish control.

In 2014, armed conflicts across the country reignited as opposing armed groups fought for control. Human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, at times amounting to war crimes, are rife.

Since its establishment, the GNA has gained strong international backing as a means to effectively halt advances by the armed group known as the Islamic State (IS) and to tackle irregular migration to Europe. Foreign diplomats have visited Libya in the past few weeks as a sign of solidarity for the new government and to discuss, among other things, migration through Libya into Europe. But the GNA has yet to take full control of key ministries and Libya’s internationally recognised parliament has yet to acknowledge its legitimacy.

In this context of instability and lawlessness, thousands of refugees and migrants outside of detention centres have also faced abductions for ransom, torture and sexual violence by armed groups, criminal gangs and networks of smugglers and traffickers. Many are systematically subjected to discrimination and exploitation by their employers. Religious minorities, in particular Christian migrants and refugees, are persecuted and are at a higher risk of abuse and summary killings from armed groups that seek to enforce their own interpretation of Islamic law.

The EU and the international community must not sidestep their obligations under international law nor ignore the scale of abuses and violations that are committed on a daily basis against foreign nationals in Libya.

Any agreements with Libya must respect the rights of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants and must be based on the Libyan authorities’ ability to demonstrate their respect and protection of these rights. Offers of assistance or proposals to control the flow of irregular migration must not perpetuate human rights abuses for those refugees and migrants trapped in abysmal and dangerous conditions in Libya.

Although states are entitled to control the entry of foreign nationals to their territories, there is a right to seek and enjoy asylum under international law, and asylum-seekers must not be punished for trying to reach safety. It is tragic and telling that the EU fears another spike in arrivals, whereas what they should be fearing is another spike in deaths at sea.

One year ago, when speaking after some 1,200 migrants and refugees had died at sea in one week alone, the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini reassured the world that the EU was “finally ready to take its own responsibilities”. This meant, she claimed, “saving lives, welcoming refugees, addressing the root causes of the phenomenon, dismantling criminal organisations”.

Sadly, since then, the EU has largely been focused on disrupting the “business model of smugglers” and securing its own borders, while ignoring its other promises. While smugglers have been reckless about exposing migrants and refugees to the risk of death at sea, they have often provided the only means of escape to desperate people fleeing abuses in Libya as well as conflict and persecution across sub-Saharan Africa. The EU must ensure that safe and legal alternatives are found for those in need of international protection.

It must increase the number of resettlement places, humanitarian admissions and visas for people in need of international protection and ensure that refugees have effective access to asylum at land borders.

As the international community bolsters its joint efforts to police Libya’s waters–– it must not overlook the fear that drives people away from Libya in the first place, nor turn a blind eye to the fate of those intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard or trapped in the country.

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