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Death toll in Mediterranean soars as EU turns its back on refugees and migrants

The soaring death toll in the central Mediterranean and the horrific abuses faced by thousands of refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centres are clearly linked to failing EU policies, said Amnesty International in a report published today (6 July).

The 31-page report, A perfect storm: The failure of European policies in the Central Mediterranean finds that by increasing collaboration with the “woefully inadequate” Libyan coastguard and ceding the lion’s share of responsibility for search-and-rescue to NGOs, European governments have failed to prevent drownings and are turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

In May last year, the EU announced plans to train, build up the capacity of and share information with the Libyan coastguard, with the purported aim of saving lives. In recent months, European institutions and governments have been stepping up this cooperation to allow the coastguard intercept people and take them back to Libya, where they are at serious risk of detention, rape and torture. EU ministers meeting in Tallinn today are set to discuss new proposals that will make a dire situation worse.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, said:

“Rather than acting to save lives and offer protection, European ministers meeting today are shamelessly prioritising reckless deals with Libya in a desperate bid to prevent refugees and migrants from reaching Italy.

“European states have progressively turned their backs on a search-and-rescue strategy that was reducing mortality at sea in favour of one that has seen thousands drown and left desperate women, men and children trapped in Libya, exposed to horrific abuses.”

Search-and-rescue abandoned

Measures implemented by EU leaders to strengthen search-and-rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean in April 2015 dramatically decreased deaths at sea. 

Several countries provided more rescue boats closer to Libyan territorial waters, with then-Prime Minister David Cameron pledging Royal Navy support, but the effort was short-lived. 

EU governments, including the UK, have since shifted their focus from saving lives to stopping people escaping Libya by sea. This strategy leaves refugees and migrants at serious risk of abuse by returning them to, and trapping them in, a country where no asylum law or system exist and where they face widespread violence and exploitation, including killings, torture, rape, kidnappings, forced labour, and arbitrary and indefinite detention in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions.

One man from Gambia told Amnesty: “I spent three months in prison…You sleep like sardines in the cell, on your side, because there is no space. They beat you if you do not lie down in the right way. The water for the toilet was also for drinking…I saw three people being tortured while I was in prison. One boy died during torture…They beat prisoners with pipes. I was beaten at night.”

Meanwhile, the EU’s policies have led to ever more dangerous crossings and a three-fold increase in the death rate from 0.89% in the second half of 2015 to 2.7% in 2017. Around 2,000 people have lost their lives this year trying to cross from Libya to Italy.

John Dalhuisen said:

“If the second half of this year continues as the first and urgent action is not taken, 2017 looks set to become the deadliest year for the deadliest migration route in the world. 

“The EU must deploy more vessels where they are desperately needed and rethink its cooperation with Libya’s woefully dysfunctional coastguard. Ultimately the only sustainable and humane way to reduce the numbers risking such horrific journeys is to open more safe and legal routes for migrants and refugees to reach Europe.” 

Smugglers changing how they operate

Changes to smugglers’ practices and an increasing use of unseaworthy boats with a complete lack of safety equipment on board have made the Mediterranean crossing even more dangerous. But despite a spike in deaths, the EU is failing to deploy an adequately resourced and dedicated humanitarian operation near Libyan territorial waters. Instead the focus of cooperation is towards strengthening the abilities of the Libyan coastguard to prevent departures and intercept boats.

Interceptions by the Libyan coastguard often put refugees and migrants at risk. Their operational techniques do not meet basic safety standards and can lead to panic and catastrophic capsizing. 

There are also serious allegations that members of the coastguard collude with smugglers and evidence that they abuse migrants. Members of the Libyan coastguard have fired guns at boats and a UN report last month reported that they were “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”.

One Nigerian man stranded with 140 others on a boat that was taking on water for nine hours told Amnesty: “All of us were praying. When I saw the lights [of the rescue boat] I thought: please, please, not the Libyan police.”

A Bangladeshi man told Amnesty what happened after he had been picked up by the Libyan coastguard. “We were 170, on a rubber boat. We were taken back to prison and we were asked for more money. They told us: ‘If you pay, nobody will stop you this time, because we are the coastguard’…Libyan prisons are just hell.”

Despite EU backing, no accountability for Libyan coastguard

EU cooperation with and training of the Libyan coastguard is currently taking place without proper accountability or an effective system to monitor their conduct and performance. 

Amnesty is calling for cooperation agreements aimed at improving the Libyan coastguards search-and-rescue capacity to be made conditional on rapid improvements in the quality of interventions and real accountability for abuses they are found responsible for. Any EU agreements should also insist on the transfer of those rescued to vessels that will take them to countries where their safety and protection needs can be guaranteed. 


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