The UN recently condemned the EU and Italy for helping the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrants in the Mediterranean and sending them back to Libya where they face abuse and violence. On 14 November in Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al Hussein discussed the migrants’ situation, declaring the EU’s policy of assisting the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants in the Mediterranean as inhuman. This condemnation of the EU by the UN is an unfamiliar criticism, for a union that sees itself as one of the last defenders of human rights in the international system.

Last year, Italy, supported by the EU, concluded an agreement to assist and train the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept boats and return migrants back to Libya. This has led to a decrease of migrants in Italy, however violence in the detention centers in Libya has risen. Moreover, Libya did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and it is not obliged to respect refugee’s rights. Thus, in helping the Libyan government, the EU is considered responsible for the abuses that migrants and refugees continue to suffer.

The UN accusations are based on the reports of their UN Human Rights Monitors, who were recently sent to Libya to observe the situation. At the beginning of November, the agents visited four Department of Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) facilities, which are detention centers controlled by the Libyan government. Monitors were shocked by what they witnessed: thousands of emaciated and traumatized men; women and children piled on top of each other; people locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities. They also reported that men and children claimed to have been beaten by guards, while many women faced rape and other sexual violence. A Sub-Saharan African woman said, “I was taken away from the DCIM centre and raped in a house by three men including a DCIM guard”.

In addition to UN Monitors, NGOs have also reported several cases of abuse in Libya. Recently, during one of their rescue operations off the Libyan coasts, a German ship of the Sea Watch documented and denounced the violent conduct of the Libyan Coast Guard towards migrants. During the rescue operation, the Libyans abused and left migrants to drown. This report has now hindered the German NGO and their rescue operations in the area.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. For some time, NGOs operating in the Mediterranean have documented the aggressive conduct of the Libyan Coast Guard. On 18 May last year, the same German ship reported to the International Court of Justice that the Libyan Coast Guard had rammed it, while it was initiating a rescue. The Coast Guards had opened fire on a boat full of migrants and then brought the migrants back to Libya. On 8 August 2017, the founder of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps, released a video, showing some Libyan Coast Guard officers shooting in the air to intimidate the crew of a Spanish NGO ship.  On 27 November 2017, the NGO Sos Méditerranée accused the Italian coast guard operational centre for delaying their intervention in order to wait for the Libyan Coast Guard.

Another denunciation came from CNN, when reporters travelled to Libya to verify the conditions of migrants and refugees. They filmed video footage showing migrants being sold as slaves. The video sparked a wave of global indignation. In fact, in France, Germany and Switzerland there were demonstrations demanding the EU governments to  cease financing the Libyan Coast Guard. As a result, on 28 November, at the request of French President Emmanuel Macron, an urgent UN Security Council meeting took place. At the meeting, Macron defined the abuses suffered by migrants as crimes against humanity. The president of the African Union, Alpha Condé, called for the opening of an investigation. Other countries followed suit: Niger requested the intervention of the International Criminal Court, and Rwanda offered to welcome 30,000 migrants.

Since the regime of dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in October 2011, Libya has struggled to make a democratic transition. Currently, the state is divided into two governments. The first in Tripoli, under the influence of the United States and Italy. The second in Tobruk, under the influence of Russia and Egypt. For years, slave traders have taken advantage of the political and economic instability, with the result that migrants and refugees are victims of continuous abuse and violence.

It seems that The EU and Italy were aware of the situation in Libya. Nevertheless, when they concluded the agreement with Libya, little concern was shown to the fact that migrants and refugees would have suffered abuses and violence. Their main objective appears to be stopping the migration flow to Europe. But at what price? The violence and abuses suffered by migrants and refugees in Libya weigh collectively on our shoulders, because of the EU’s indifference.

Daniele Grippo

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