On 23 September 2015, the heads of state and government of European Union (EU) Member States gathered for an informal meeting on migration. The meeting failed to issue an appropriate response to migration across the Mediterranean, which has continued to claim the lives of migrants and asylum-seekers embarking from Libya. Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) urges the European Council to adopt a strategy which safeguards the human rights of those who continue to attempt entry into Europe via the Mediterranean.
To reach Europe, migrants and asylum-seekers often rely on the services of smugglers in order to embark on their journey in overcrowded and unsafe boats. In April, an estimated 400 lives were lost when a boat that had set off from Libya capsized 80 nautical miles south of Lampedusa. According to the International Organization for Migration, 2,892 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean by irregular means this year alone and as many as 20,000 in the last two decades.
The EU has so far failed to address the ongoing crisis in an appropriate manner. A militarised response that further empowers border control agencies, such as a European Union Naval Force – Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med), will likely be of limited impact in preventing the activities of smugglers whilst causing severe consequences to those attempting to seek asylum. Hannah Offermann, Anti-Torture Programme Coordinator, noted “Smugglers have so far responded to attempts to disrupt their activities by placing those seeking their services in precarious situations, for example, abandoning boats adrift in the Mediterranean. In addition, there have been recent allegations of foreign agents carrying out armed attacks against smugglers within Libya’s territory. If true, this behaviour would not only be unlawful but extremely reckless, as it may cause further instability in an already volatile political environment.”
LFJL is concerned that EU Member States may attempt to stem the numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers entering Europe by providing support for ‘migrant detention centres’ in Libya. In recent years, such centres have regularly been accused of severe human rights violations due to their poor conditions, lack of trained staff and the absence of appropriate legal processing of those detained. In addition, several reports have evidenced that guards in such centres have tortured and abused detainees, including by severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks.
As all EU Member States are party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, they are obliged to prevent acts of torture and to abstain from returning a person to another State where he or she would be in danger of being subjected to torture. In accordance with their obligations under international human rights law, EU Member States should ensure that their contributions are not used to support ‘migrant detention centres’ where inmates are subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.
At its next meeting in October, the European Council should discuss in more detail how the EU can provide greater support to efforts to mitigate the ongoing conflict in Libya. As the conflict fuels the number of individuals who attempt to cross the Mediterranean, a more holistic response is needed to stop the loss of life at sea. Such a response needs to be in line with EU Member States’ obligations under international human rights law and refrain from rendering migrants and asylum-seekers vulnerable to further abuse.