Migration through the Mediterranean : which European responses ?
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Migration from Libya to Europe: No end in sight to the current deadlock
Since the beginning of 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) has reported 13,500 migrants and refugees intercepted by Libyan coast-guards in the Mediterranean. This illustrates the gradual shift in focus towards Libyan coast guards, who are shouldering more of the burden. The number of interceptions is up on the total for 2017, when 5,500 people were picked up and shipped back to Libya.
The EU is doubling down on its cooperation with the Libyan authorities, now assigning the coordination of migrant rescue operations to the Libyan coast guards. This was formerly handled by the Italian authorities, so the number of returned migrants is bound to grow further over the next years.
To coordinate these operations, Libya will be relying heavily on Italy, whose parliament voted at the beginning of August to send ships and zodiacs to patrol with the Libyan coast guards.
However, the decision to repatriate migrants and refugees in Libya – and their fate once they get there – has been severely criticised by UN institutions and NGOs. For the HCR, Libya is not a “safe country”, and the countries sending migrants and refugees rescued in international waters may be violating international law, in particular the principle of non-refoulement. As such, the HCR asked for an investigation to be opened when an Italian ship, the Asso Ventotto, disembarked 108 people in Libya it had picked up in international waters at the end of July. Italy had already been found guilty in 2012 (the arrest of Hirsi Jamaa and others by Italy) by the European Court of Human Rights for the violation of the principle of non-refoulement, after an Italian ship intercepted a boat on the high seas and took its occupants directly to Libya, without evaluating their individual situations or the risks they were exposed to. More recently, the Aquarius (a humanitarian boat run by SOS Méditerranée and Médecins sans frontières) refused to follow the instructions given by the Libyan coast guards, who ordered them to transfer the people they’d saved to Libyan soil. The NGO argued their case by declaring that “Libya cannot be considered a safe port”.
What’s more, the fate of the migrants and refugees shipped back to Libya since 2017 (when the EU began reinforcing the operations on the Libyan coast) continues to raise fears among UN institutions and NGOs. At the end of 2017, the international community was in uproar about revelations by the American channel CNN, which revealed that refugees and migrants were being enslaved in Libya. And when they aren’t being sold into slavery, migrants and refugees are placed in detention centres. Here, according to Amnesty International, “basic human rights are violated on a daily basis, and there are shortages of food and water”. For Médecins sans frontières, these detention centres are over-populated and expose the people within to “appalling and arbitrary” living conditions.
The conditions facing refugees and migrants in Libya are further exacerbated by the current security situation in the country. Over the past few weeks, several Libyan towns and cities (including the capital, Tripoli, where violence erupted on the 26th of August) have been the scenes of violent confrontations between armed groups and militias. Sincerely concerned by the civilians in the Libyan capital, the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations (HCHR) is particularly alarmed by the fate of the country’s migrants. The HCHR is concerned about the 8,000 people who are being arbitrarily detained in detention centres near conflict zones, and also about the refugees and migrants who have been released and are exposed to human traffickers and forced recruitment into militias.
Confronted with this unstable security situation, and following the outcry from the CNN report, the HCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have recently been evacuating migrants and refugees. Between January and July 2018, the IOM managed to evacuate almost 11,000 people from Libya to their home country. The HCR has also organised the evacuation of hundreds of other refugees and migrants: between November 2017 and September 2018, around 1,800 women, children and invalids were evacuated to other nearby host countries such as Niger. However, the HCR’s activities recently came under fire when it was revealed that human traffickers had been using their uniforms and equipment. The HCR has since asked the Libyan authorities to take steps to combat these practices.
And while the European Union is struggling to find a solution for the Mediterranean problem, this complex cooperation with Libya has hardly been met with universal approval, and the Commission and some States are currently looking at other alternative to completely close the route through the Central Mediterranean. So what’s the next step? An agreement with Egypt?