26th Oct 2016


Dying to leave Libya

  • Migrants in Lampedusa. Sunderland: 'People are literally dying to leave Libya' (Photo: Antonio Amendola)

A man named Mohammed posted this plea on the Migrants at Sea website three days after a rickety boat capsized on 6 April in rough seas just 39 miles from Lampedusa: "i wont to know if my brother is there with the eritreans died in the sea his name is sebah tahir nuru." The long-expected exodus by sea from war-torn Libya has begun, and with it the tragic and avoidable loss of life.

Leading EU member states such as France and the UK are active players in the UN Security-Council-mandated Nato air operations to protect Libya's civilian population. Yet when it comes to civilians fleeing Libya by boat, EU states seem more concerned with domestic politics than saving lives.

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More than 200 people, including children, are presumed dead in the 6 April tragedy. Two young women died on 13 April when the small boat that held them and over 200 others smashed into rocks off Sicily. As many as 800 more people who have left Libya by boat in the following days are unaccounted for.

A survivor of an unsuccessful crossing told me there were 72 people in his boat when it left Libya. When the boat was already in distress, what appeared to be a military helicopter hovered above and dropped some water and biscuits. The captain of the boat decided to remain in the area, believing the helicopter would send a rescue team. None came. As the boat, now out of fuel, drifted, the occupants saw what looked like an aircraft carrier and tried to convey that they were in distress, but received no help. The boat drifted for two weeks before the currents pushed it back to Libya. Only nine out of the 72 people on board survived.

The focus of Europe's recent migration discussion has largely been on Tunisia. As many as 23,000 Tunisians - mostly young men in search of a better life - have reached Italian shores since January, most at Lampedusa.

Increased border controls by neighboring countries to block them from traveling further into Europe, new plans by France and Italy for joint patrols off the Tunisian coast, renewed bickering between Italy and Malta about who is responsible for people rescued at sea, and stepped up sea patrols by the EU border control agency Frontex in the Mediterranea - all are based on the 'keep them out' approach that has characterised much of EU asylum and migration policy over the past decade.

But since late March, when the first wave of people began to flee Libya by sea, more than 8,000 have reached Italy and over 1,000 have reached Malta. The vast majority are sub-Saharan Africans, primarily Somalis and Eritreans. Human Rights Watch has documented violent attacks on black Africans inside Libya in the aftermath of the uprising, including at checkpoints as they tried to reach Egypt.

With thousands of migrants trapped in Libya - the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates up to 7,000 in Misrata alone - and unable to flee by land to neighboring Tunisia or Egypt, many more may risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. There have been some positive ad hoc responses: the UK has said it would help finance evacuations organized by the International Organization for Migration from Misrata to Benghazi.

But it is time for concerted European action. Europe's response to increasing attempts to reach its shores from Libya should be guided by two fundamental goals: preventing deaths at sea and ensuring access to protection. Here are four steps the region should take.

Commit to search and rescue at sea

All vessels should rescue overcrowded migrant boats fleeing Libya without hesitation. Italy and Malta need to step up their vital operations at sea, intensifying efforts to identify boats before they are in distress and accompany them to safe harbors. Disputes about responsibility put lives at risk. The EU and other member states should support these efforts with technical and financial assistance, bilaterally and through Frontex.

Ensure access to protection in Europe

Both economic migrants and asylum seekers are risking their lives at sea. No distinctions should be made when it comes to preventing tragedies or guaranteeing humane treatment. All those intercepted or rescued at sea should be screened in a safe place - not at sea - to identify who needs international protection. The French/Italian joint patrols off Tunisia and any others should follow clear rules of engagement that emphasise rescue, access to protection, and no summary pushbacks.

It is a sad echo of past policies that some of those who have arrived in Italy in recent days had been pushed back to Libya by Italy in 2009. And Abu, the young Ethiopian who told me about his two weeks' drifting at sea this month, said he was among a group intercepted in July 2010 and returned to Libya in a joint Italy-Libya operation.

Conduct sea evacuations

EU foreign ministers agreed in early April to set up an EU military force for Libya (Eufor Libya) for humanitarian action, including evacuations by sea. EU high representative Catherine Ashton should immediately co-ordinate with the UN and international humanitarian organisations on how Eufor can assist in the safe evacuation of the most vulnerable civilians trapped in Libya, particularly sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers.

With Tunisia and Egypt already hosting hundreds of thousands of people from other countries who have fled the violence in Libya, European countries should show solidarity by agreeing to evacuate some of those trapped in Libya to Europe.

Step up refugee resettlement

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has called on EU member states to resettle refugees in Tunisia and Egypt identified by the UN refugee body, the UNHCR. While a number of EU states have agreed to take asylum seekers who arrived in Malta after the perilous sea crossing, offers to resettle people from Tunisia and Egypt have been limited.

Individual EU countries should increase their quotas for refugee resettlement, and move swiftly as a block to create the Joint European Resettlement Program, which would allow for a more coordinated response.

Mohammed may never find out what happened to his brother, or be able to give him a decent burial.

People are literally dying to leave Libya. Europe needs to do much more to give them safe passage.

Judith Sunderland is senior researcher on western Europe for Human Rights Watch


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