Thursday

20th Sep 2018

Opinion

EU plans for Libya risk crossing migration 'red lines'

  • Overcrowded, unseaworthy migrant boats are by definition in distress (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

There seems to be an inexorable momentum toward militarisation of the Mediterranean and of migration control.

US president Barack Obama recently endorsed a European Union proposal for a Nato operation in the central Mediterranean, building on the coalition’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean (Aegean Sea) since February.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • There seems to be an inexorable momentum toward militarisation (Photo: raramuridesign)

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is leading efforts to push the EU’s naval “anti-smuggling” mission, Operation Sophia, currently operating in international waters off the Libyan coast, into Libyan territorial waters.

Let’s drop anchor for a moment to reflect on what this could mean for migrants and asylum seekers.

This is the latest instalment in EU efforts to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers from North Africa.

With a significant drop in crossings in the Aegean Sea, all eyes are now on the central Mediterranean, with around 30,000 having crossed, mainly from Libya, since the beginning of this year.

Italian officials and even German chancellor Angela Merkel have gone so far as to suggest that the EU should strike a deal with Libya similar to the one with Turkey, which allows the return of asylum seekers on the presumption that they are “safe” there.

The assessment that Turkey is safe for refugees and asylum seekers is wrong.

But the idea that Libya, riven by warring factions and with a fledgling and contested government of national unity that the EU is desperate to legitimise, can provide a safe haven is positively mind-boggling.

Given the daily dangers of life in Libya, it seems beyond the point to mention that Libya has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic refugee law or asylum procedure.

The dangers to migrants who find themselves in Libya pre-date even the civil war in the country; in 2006 Human Rights Watch published a report on the cruel treatment migrants experienced in detention centres there.

Long-standing, well-documented abuses against migrants and asylum seekers in Libya led the European Court of Human Rights to condemn Italy unequivocally for intercepting migrant boats and pushing them back to Libya in 2009.

The court’s ruling laid down clear red lines: once EU authorities have effective control or custody over migrants, regardless of where that occurs, they are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Italy had in this case violated a fundamental norm of EU and international law: the prohibition on returning someone to a place where they face threats to their lives and freedom, as the court found they did in Libya.

In other words, European countries cannot wash their hands of responsibilities towards migrants and refugees, whether on the high seas or in the territorial waters of a non-EU country.

Migrants and asylum seekers in Libya continue to face threats in Libya. Human Rights Watch again documented torture, overcrowding, dire sanitation conditions, and lack of access to medical care in migrant detention centres in 2014.

'Shame and frustration'

Detainees we interviewed told us guards beat them with iron rods, sticks, and rifle butts, and whipped them with cables, hose pipes, and rubber whips made of car tires and plastic tubes, sometimes over prolonged periods of time on the soles of their feet.

In one centre five detainees said guards suspended them upside down from a tree and then whipped them. As recently as May 2015, migrants and asylum seekers I interviewed spoke of living in fear in Libya and recounted being robbed, beaten, and extorted by employers, common criminals, security forces and militias.

The bottom line is that the EU and Nato should not push anyone back to Libya. That would expose people to the risk of serious violations, violate international and EU law, and undermine the EU’s global standing.

EU cooperation with Libyan forces to prevent people from getting beyond Libyan territorial waters is no less fraught with ethical and legal questions if the consequence is torture, indefinite arbitrary detention in abysmal conditions or deportation to countries of origin where they may face persecution and worse.

Mogherini recently said she felt “shame and frustration over the walls we see rising in Europe”. Yet a naval cordon on water is no less shameful than one of concrete and razor wire on land.

In July, the EU is due to propose its next steps following an internal evaluation of Operation Sophia, and Nato will hold a summit in Warsaw. These will be defining moments.

First, save lives

What the EU and Nato should do is pretty simple. First, save lives. Regardless of who controls the waters, and whether a merchant, military, or leisure vessel, all ships are bound by the laws of the sea to respond to boats in distress.

Overcrowded, unseaworthy migrant boats are by definition in distress. The laws of the sea also require that ship captains take rescued passengers to a safe place.

So, second, bring people to EU countries. In an act of genuine solidarity, participating countries should commit to taking a portion of those rescued or intercepted, and to process their claims fairly and efficiently.

They can return those who are not in need of international protection to their countries of origin, following a fair process that respects their rights. They should allow those in need of refuge to stay and give them a real shot at rebuilding their lives in dignity.

No one deserves to be returned to, or stranded in, Libya.

Judith Sunderland is associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division

Tusk says 'alarming' numbers of migrants in Libya

Council chief substantiated concern that more people could cross the Mediterranean to Italy and Malta, and warned that relying on refugee relocations to face migrant flows would be a “mistake”.

News in Brief

  1. UK's Brexit plan 'won't work', says EU's Tusk
  2. Austria ex-chancellor hints at running for Juncker's job
  3. Greece to move asylum-seekers from overcrowded Lesbos camp
  4. Transatlantic soya trade soars due to trade wars
  5. EU tables strategy for connecting Europe and Asia
  6. Bulgaria backs Hungary in dispute with EU
  7. Trump urged Spain to build Sahara wall to stop migrants
  8. EU-Arab League summit proposed for February in Egypt

Will the centre-right stand up for EU values?

Time for Christian Democrats in the EP to show where they stand on Hungary and on the EU's founding principles, say Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint text.

Europe needs more modern leadership

If Europe wants to be a global leader, our political leadership has to change dramatically. Power needs a new face in Europe, and it needs to get legitimacy from the people, argues liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  2. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  4. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  5. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  6. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  7. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  8. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  9. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  10. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  12. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  2. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  4. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  5. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  8. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  10. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  12. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us