Last week, in Paris, seven European and African heads of state or government agreed a plan of action on migration and asylum, linked to movements from sub-Saharan Africa via Libya to Europe. The final text acknowledged a shared responsibility to address the root causes of irregular migration and the human rights abuses faced by migrants, the need to protect those who need protecting and support for the contribution of regular and well-managed migration.
These are important commitments, but they do not disguise the fact that the plan is geared primarily towards stopping people en route to Europe.
There is no simple solution to this most complex of issues, no magic bullet that will reconcile the pressures on people to escape war, persecution or poverty, climate change and other man-made disasters, with the reluctance of European nations to accept large numbers of migrants and refugees.
Perhaps the most worrying omission in the Paris document, is a failure to draw up a detailed blueprint to tackle the hidden human calamity that continues to take place within Libya, and along its coast.
Last December, a report issued jointly by my office and the UN Support Mission in Libya detailed the horrendous violations and abuses faced by migrants in official and unofficial detention centres in Libya. The report received some attention at the time, but memories are short when facts are inconvenient.
Nine months later, the situation has, if anything, grown worse. Allegations pour in, far beyond our capacity to verify them. Reports of bodies in the desert, in the forest, on the beaches. UN human rights staff contact the morgues in various towns, which complain they do not have enough space to store all the bodies. Some migrants die of thirst, hunger or easily-cured illnesses, some are tortured or beaten to death while working as slave labour, others are just casually murdered.
The unidentified bodies are buried in unmarked graves. Others simply disappear, unrecorded, unmourned, while somewhere in a far-flung country south of the Sahara, relatives wait anxiously for news that will never come. Apart from them, hardly anyone appears to care.
Our staff also document the rape of women in detention. They find ways to meet women who are locked up all day by men – the same men who organize their rape by night. In some cases, every night. We talk to these women, but are powerless to extract them from this ghastly fate. Such rape is endemic. Yet, both inside and outside Libya – despite reports like our one of last December, or articles like this – hardly anyone appears to care.
The information we receive is sketchy. We only hear from some parts of the country. Other parts are too dangerous to access, either for UN staff or others who might pass on the information. We cannot even guess the scale of the abuses inflicted on migrants in all these hidden places, untouched by the rule of law. The situation of migrants crossing Libya was appalling during Gaddafi’s era, but it has become diabolical since.
And here lies the moral – and legal – dilemma for the EU. When we interviewed migrants in Italy, we found many had been picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard during their initial attempts to escape. It didn’t stop their desperate efforts to reach Europe, it just made them more desperate after they were delivered back to the clutches of militias and state employees who exploit and abuse them. Returning people to detention centres where they are held arbitrarily, and face torture, rape and other serious human rights violations is a clear breach of the international law prohibition of ‘non-refoulement’.
The EU, and Italy in particular, are committed to supporting the Libyan Coast Guard – a coast guard that has shot at NGO boats trying to rescue migrants at risk of drowning – with the result that the NGOs now have to operate much further out to sea. A coast guard that sometimes rescues migrants in distress – but sometimes chooses not to. Like the militias onshore, coastguards also sometimes beat, rob and even shoot the migrants they intercept. Some European authorities play down the behaviour of a Coast Guard which jeopardises lives, while criticizing the NGOs trying to save them.
Yesterday, 7 September, the President of one of those NGOs, Joanne Liu of Médecins Sans Frontières, published an open letter in which she described the horrendous conditions she and her staff have encountered in the detention centres, and decries what she describes as the “cynical complicity” of those who support returning migrants to Libya while turning a blind eye to what is going on there. I fully support her analysis, and share her disgust at this situation.
I do not wish to downplay the Paris agreement, which contains the important recognition that a comprehensive response is needed to this complex situation. But it is very thin on the protection of the human rights of migrants inside Libya and on the boats, and silent on the urgent need for alternatives to the arbitrary detention of vulnerable people.
Serious action is needed to protect the hundreds of thousands of migrants bottled up in Libya, as innocent people continue to die or be maltreated every single day, on land and at sea. We should not continue to avert our eyes from this brutal reality.
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