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Libya: rise in interceptions and deterioration of migrants’ living conditions
In response to the escalation of the Libyan conflict in April 2019, NGOs and international organisations voiced concern over the increase in the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean being intercepted by the Libyan coast guards and the deterioration of living conditions in detention centres.
According to “Desperate Journeys”, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) covering the period January to September 2019, 58 per cent of those who left Libya by sea in 2019 were sent back to the war-torn country, including nearly 500 people between 14 and 21 October, and 7,000 since the beginning of the year. And yet, living conditions are particularly appalling for the 45,000 asylum seekers and refugees currently stranded in the country. The UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, revealed that some refugees had gone as far as paying for their own detention because they “feel better protected in [these centres] than outside” where “they are targeted by traffickers, are kidnapped or subject to extortion or torture”, while others believe, wrongly, that they may have a better chance of being evacuated and resettled in Europe.
The UNHCR’s overcrowded Gathering and Departure Centre in Tripoli, which is no longer able to carry out its missions in good conditions, and will no longer receive vulnerable populations from the beginning of 2020. Instead, it will become an “open centre”, only maintaining certain services such as medical and legal assistance, psychosocial support and the distribution of essential items. In a press release published on 24 May, ten international NGOs working in Libya called upon the European Union and its Member States to “urgently review” their migration policy and to provide assistance to migrants who are detained in an “arbitrary and indefinite” manner and in “appalling” conditions.
Despite these criticisms, some European states have signed agreements or tacitly cooperate with the Libyan coast guard to limit the number of arrivals on their coastlines. On 22 October, Vincent Cochetel announced the opening of a UNHCR investigation against Malta on the grounds that the international organisation suspected the Maltese authorities of allowing Libyan coastguards to intercept a boat within its territorial waters. If confirmed, this event would, according to Mr. Cochetel, constitute a clear violation of the Law of the Sea and the principle of non-refoulement, as established in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Meanwhile, on 30 October, the Italian government decided to renew the memorandum initially concluded with Libya in February 2017 to reduce the intensity of migration flows from North Africa to the European Union. The memorandum provides that Italy would supply ships to the Libyan army and coastguard and that the EU would provide them with training. On 6 November, the Italian Interior Minister, Luciana Lamorgese, nevertheless stated before the Chamber of Deputies that some of the content of the agreement would be renegotiated, particularly the agreement on Libyan detention centres, so that they could be gradually closed and replaced by facilities managed by UN agencies.