27th Sep 2023

EU turns blind eye to 'inhuman' Italy-Libya pact, watchdog says

  • More than 75 percent of the boat migrants arriving in Italy last year were asylum seekers. (Photo: nobordernetwork)

The EU remains keen on enhancing ties with Libya despite its poor treatment of the scores of African migrants intercepted and sent back by Italy, a report by Human Rights Watch reads.

A 92-page Human Rights Watch report, released on Monday (21 September) as EU justice ministers were gathering in Brussels for their monthly meeting, with immigration high on the agenda, examines what it describes as the "brutal" treatment of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Libya through the eyes of those who have managed to leave and are currently in Italy and Malta.

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"Conditions ... generally qualify as inhuman and degrading," the report says.

"One member state is going out and openly violating international law by intercepting migrants and maybe many refugees, sending them off to undergo degrading treatment, giving them no opportunity to seek asylum," Bill Frelick, author of the report, told EUobserver.

"Can Europe wash its hands of this?" he asked.

The report documents conditions in so-called reception centres in Libya to which migrants are sent by the Italian coast guard - a policy that is the product of a bilateral agreement with Tripoli.

In January, the Italian island of Lampedusa was full of migrants sleeping on the floors of the reception centre, but by May, after the Italians inaugurated the return policy, the centre was almost empty, Mr Frelick recalled.

"Italians are very happy that the policy is working," he said.

But last year, 75 percent of the people coming to Lampedusa were asylum seekers, he stressed, and half of them had a right to international protection, because they were refugees coming from conflict zones such as Somalia or Darfur.

As Italy rejects every boat, without assessing the needs or legitimate claims of the people on it, it is basically forcefully sending them back to places where their lives are endangered, Mr Frelick pointed out.

Libyan police connected to traffickers

Refugees interviewed by the Washington-based human rights watchdog said the line between police and migrant-trafficking ringleaders in Libya was blurred. Moreover, people are kept in cells, often not knowing if the building was a prison or a trafficker's house, and released only after their families paid more money - and it is never clear whether the money is for bail or ransom.

Some migrants even spoke of people being driven out and left in the desert when families failed to pay.

An Eritrean, Iggi, paid smugglers some €500 to take him from Khartoum to Tripoli. Instead, they took him only as far as Kufra, a prison for irregular immigrants within Libyan territory, where they held him and 78 other people in a closed 10 metre by 20 metre room without windows for ten days and then demanded more money.

"A Somali man died in that room. I don't know his name. We couldn't communicate with him, but we did everything we could to save him. During our 13 days travel in the desert the transporters had mixed benzene with our water so we would drink less, and he got sick. The guards knew he was sick, but they wouldn't take him to the hospital or do anything to help him," Iggi told HRW.

Libya has not ratified the international convention on refugees and treats all returned people as illegal immigrants, regardless of their country of origin or need for assistance.

"There are no refugees in Libya," Brigadier General Mohamed Bashir Al Shabbani, director of the Office of Immigration at the General People's Committee for Public Security, told Human Rights Watch. "They are people who sneak into the country illegally and they cannot be described as refugees." He said that anyone who enters the country without formal documents and permission is arrested.

EU keen on better relations with Libya

Despite Libya's rough immigration practices, the European Commission is going ahead with negotiations on a general framework agreement for enhanced ties. A key part of the deal is a re-admission agreement with Tripoli that would create a formal return mechanism.

HRW urges the EU to ensure that the human rights clause in the framework agreement contains "explicit reference to the rights of asylum seekers and migrants as a prerequisite for any co-operation on migration-control schemes."

It also calls on EU institutions and member states to refrain from "encouraging Libya to establish any reception regime that falls below the European reception condition standards."

Referring to Italy, the human rights watchdog says it should immediately stop the return of boat migrants to Libya. Rome should also investigate allegations that Italian naval personnel beat and used electric shocks to force boat migrants onto Libyan vessels.

Italy should also stop funding the Libyan coast guard and support the UN instead to ensure that fundamental human rights standards of refugees are respected, the HRW report urges.

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