By Peter Beaumont
Human Rights Watch accuses EU institutions of sustaining network of ‘inhuman and degrading’ migrant detention centres.
The EU’s support for Libya’s anti-migrant policies is contributing to a cycle of “extreme abuse”, including arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, extortion and forced labour.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, who interviewed 66 migrants and asylum seekers in Libya last year, EU institutions and member states are continuing to sustain a network of detention centres characterised by “inhuman and degrading” conditions where the risk of abuse is rife.
Detailing a pattern of treatment in Libyan detention centres which it said “violates international law”, the group accused senior EU officials of being aware of the abuses but repeatedly failing to act.
The report highlights EU assistance to the Libyan coastguard to enable it to intercept migrants and asylum seekers at sea, at which point they are taken to Libya. Italy, in particular, is accused of “abdicat[ing] virtually all responsibility for coordination of rescue operations at sea in a bid to limit the number of people arriving on its shores”.
“Since 2016, the EU has intensified efforts to prevent boat departures from Libya. EU policymakers and leaders justify this focus as a political and practical necessity to assert control over Europe’s external borders and ‘break the business model of smugglers’, as well as a humanitarian imperative to prevent dangerous boat migration,” said the report, published on Monday.
The study follows the publication of new data from the International Organisation for Migration showing that – despite the EU’s Libya policy – migrant numbers arriving by sea in Europe in the first 16 days of 2019 were nearly double that of the same period last year, totalling 4,216 arrivals.
An estimated 170 migrants are feared to have died since last week in the Mediterranean in two incidents involving dinghies that left from Libya and Morocco, migrants organisations have said.
One dinghy was spotted sinking in rough waters on Friday by an Italian military plane on patrol. A naval helicopter was dispatched and rescued three people who said they had left Libya on Thursday night as part of a group of 120 people.
“After 10 to 11 hours at sea … (the boat) started sinking and people started drowning,” Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.
In another incident, 53 migrants who left Morocco on a dinghy were missing after what one survivor said was a collision in the Alboran Sea, in the western Mediterranean.
Among accusations levelled by those interviewed by HRW are that members of the Libyan coastguard, which includes untrained former militia members who fought against Gaddafi, “threatened to shoot” intercepted migrants who refused to board their boat.
According to Joanna, a 34-year-old mother of three from Cameroon, who was on a boat intercepted by the coastguard in international waters: “Men on the large Libyan boat threw us a rope and at first we refused to tie it to ours.
The Libyans shot into the air and threatened us: ‘If you don’t tie it on to the boat then we will shoot at you.’ So we tied it to our boat and they started to move people to their boat.”
The US-led group adds that increased legal and bureaucratic obstacles imposed in Europe to block most non-governmental maritime rescue operations in the central Mediterranean has contributed to a rising death toll even as the numbers attempting to reach Europe from Libya have dropped.
“While Mediterranean departures have decreased since mid-2017, the chances of dying in waters off the coast of Libya significantly increased, from one in 42 in 2017 to one in 18 in 2018,” the group added, citing figures collected by the UN’s refugee agency.
The report adds that while the IOM had assisted more than 30,000 people to return from Libya to their home countries through its “voluntary humanitarian program”, increased interceptions by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard have led to a rise in the number of migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya to between 8,000 to 10,000 people, up from 5,200 in April 2018.
Describing unsanitary conditions and a lack of proper healthcare in the centres visited, researchers also documented repeated claims of serious abuse by the authorities against detainees.
Researchers visited detention centres in Tripoli, Misrata and Zuwara where they documented inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary accommodation, poor-quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate healthcare, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings and use of electric shocks.
Judith Sunderland, lead author of the report, told the Guardian: “There has been a wilful attempt to ignore what is going on.
“There have been some efforts to mitigate the situation and to try to improve conditions in the detention centres, and to improve the capacity and professionalism of the Libyan coastguard. But… it is past time to accept the fact that these efforts are not bearing fruit.
“It is important to keep in mind that the overarching ambition of this policy is to limit arrivals of migrants to EU shores. The logic is clear and they appear willing to accept a Faustian bargain. But what is needed is a reset to a failed strategy.”
Photo: Refugees wait at the Tariq al-Matar detention centre, on the outskirts of Tripoli. (Taha Jawashi/AFP/Getty Images)
Peter Beaumont is a senior reporter on the Guardian’s Global Development desk. He has reported extensively from conflict zones including Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East and is the author of The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict