Revelations that a European Union-funded group known as the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) has placed at least 200 migrants in a detention centre bombed in July, killing roughly 50 people have raised concerns over EU efforts to stifle immigration.
The LCG has received roughly 91m euros from the European Commission since 2017 to stem migration, all while NGOs that engage in search and rescue operations have come under increasing pressure from EU authorities, especially in Italy and Spain.
The LCG is trained by European authorities, which also claim to monitor their efficacy. But rights groups have long warned the LCG isn’t operating with migrant safety as a priority.
On July 24 the LCG placed 38 intercepted migrants in the Tarjoua detention centre, which was bombed on July 3, killing 58 people. But Doctors Without Borders (MSF) confirmed to Spanish media that roughly 200 were placed there.
Haidi Sadik, the cultural mediator for Sea-Watch a migrant rescue NGO that helps save the lives of people in the Mediterranean, said in an interview that the LCG has previously asked Sea-Watch to place rescued migrants in danger.
Regulations under maritime and international law require that ships who see anyone in danger in the sea be rescued people and taken to a port of safety.
The LCG has even asked a Sea-Watch vessel to take rescued migrants to Tripoli, Libya, in June, calling it a “port of safety”, according to emails the NGO received and Sea-Watch published on social media.
The cultural mediator stressed that Tripoli is not a port of safety for those escaping wars, considering the internal conflict occurring there which some have called a “bloodbath”.
The EU’s system of migration control underwent a shift in policy during 2017. After a high number of migrants travelled to Europe from Africa in 2014, in 2015 the EU launched Operation Sophia in international waters, with its headquarters in Rome. This operation was dependent on the Italian Navy, coastguard and other vessels saving migrants and bringing them to Italy and other southern European countries to have their requests for asylum processed.
Many NGO boats frequently rescued migrants from small boats after smugglers brought them short distances away from African coasts. These NGO boats cooperated with the Italian coastguard, navy and other vessels as they would pass migrants to them or take migrants directly to ports. But, as the number of migrants entering the EU rose, in 2016 and 2017 the EU shifted the emphasis to paying and training African countries to keep migrants away from Europe. This change to Operation Sophia included the EU training the Libyan coastguard and navy.
In light of this policy, the number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea fell from 181,436 in 2016 to 119,369 in 2017 and 23,370 in 2018. EU officials knew that the Operation Sophia shift away from sea rescues, in 2017, involved collaborating with and paying African militias and funding horrendous detention centres. They also knew this would result in migrant deaths, according to leaked documents from EU agencies.
Since 2018, Italy has asked other EU states to share the distribution of migrants and operation of sea patrols, and to open their ports for migrants to disembark, but they have mostly refused. Consequently, in March 2019, Operation Sophia was extended for six months, but with the end of maritime rescue patrols and more training for the Libyan coastguard. While the current Italian government has been in the spotlight for fining migrant rescuers, it is the EU that has most starkly abandoned migrants.
The heads of the two key UN agencies championing refugees and migrants have called for an end to their “arbitrary detention” across Libya, following an agreement on Tuesday by European Union countries to offer those fleeing across the Mediterranean a safe berth through a new distribution mechanism.
“The violence in Tripoli in recent weeks has made the situation more desperate than ever, and the need for action critical”, stressed António Vitorino, Director General of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Disagreements on how to distribute people rescued at sea, led the European Union (EU) to end official Mediterranean Sea patrols earlier this year, as Italy rejected having to take the bulk of those rescued. While the specifics have not yet been outlined, news agencies reported that 14 EU countries have reached a tentative agreement to allocate migrants and refugees more evenly across the bloc.
The UN officials advocated for a more orderly release process for those in detention, within urban areas or open centres, “that allow reasonable freedom of movement, shelter, assistance and protection from harm, plus independent monitoring and regular unhindered access for humanitarian agencies”. Considering the risks of abuse, maltreatment or death, “no one should be returned to detention centres in Libya after being intercepted or rescued at sea”, they stressed.
They said the renewed commitment from EU States for those making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing was encouraging: “The status quo, where search and rescue operations are often left to NGO [non-governmental organisations] or commercial vessels, cannot continue”, underscored the high-ranking officials, calling for a renewed commitment to an EU State search and rescue operation, “similar to programmes we have seen in recent years”.
The “crucial role” of NGOs “must be acknowledged”, they continued and not criminalised or stigmatised for saving lives at sea.