Human Rights Violations Against Migrants in Libya

Five years ago, the European Union entered into a partnership with Libya which has led to over 82,000 people being intercepted in the Central Mediterranean and returned to deplorable conditions in Libya. Amnesty International looks back at the human rights crisis which has unfolded since the signing of the 2017 agreements.

Over the last five years, multiple reports have revealed the horrific suffering inflicted on foreign citizens in Libya. Amnesty International reports: “Men, women and children returned to Libya face arbitrary detention, torture, cruel and inhuman detention conditions, rape and sexual violence, extortion, forced labour and unlawful killings.”

The Libyan Government of National Unity’s (GNU) actions in recent months have continued to worsen the exploitation and abuse. The recent appointment of Mohamed al-Khoja as the new director of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) is a clear sign of their disregard for the wellbeing of foreign citizens. Al-Khoja is known for his previous role in running the notorious Tariq al-Sikka detention center where detainees have reported the systematic violation of their rights. 

Migrants, refugees and trafficking victims had been protesting their lack of protection against raids, abuse and arbitrary arrest since October 2021 outside the U.N. refugee agency’s (UNHCR) center in Tripoli. But last month, security forces stormed the sit-in, firing live ammunition and arbitrarily arresting hundreds. They were taken to Ain Zara detention center where they are held in unsanitary conditions and reportedly abused by guards. 

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has expressed “grave concern” regarding the trafficking and abuse occurring in Libya. In a report dated January 17, he reiterates that Libya cannot be considered a safe port of disembarkation for people intercepted in the Mediterranean and calls on Member States “to re-examine policies that support interception at sea and return of refugees and migrants to Libya”.

The E.U.’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard began in 2016 and was strengthened when Italy and Libya signed a Memorandum of Understanding on February 2, 2017. The E.U. backed this agreement a day later, signing the Malta Declaration. 

These agreements laid the foundations for five years of cooperation through which the E.U. effectively outsources its central Mediterranean border management to Libya. The E.U. has provided training, uniforms, boats and more to build the Libyan Coast Guard’s capacity to intercept and return people attempting to cross the sea.

“EU leaders’ cooperation with Libyan authorities is keeping desperate people trapped in unimaginable horrors in Libya. Over the past five years, Italy, Malta and the EU have helped capture tens of thousands of women, men and children at sea, many of whom ended up in horrific detention centres rife with torture, while countless others were forcibly disappeared,” Writes Matteo de Bellis, Researcher on Migration and Asylum at Amnesty International.

The current agreement between Libya and Italy comes to an end in February 2023, but will be automatically renewed for a further three years unless canceled before this November. 

Despite the evidence of human rights violations and the Secretary-General’s calls, the E.U. is still planning to continue their migration partnership with Libya, as confirmed by a confidential E.U. report made public by the Associated Press on January 25.

But the movement to end this exploitative system in Libya is gaining power. Organizations around Europe and northern Africa are calling for the E.U. to stop facilitating these crimes. 

“The EU and its Member States must suspend any cooperation leading to the containment and human rights abuses of people in Libya, and instead focus on opening urgently needed legal pathways for the thousands trapped in Libya in need of international protection,” urges De Bellis urges.

Activists and human rights organizations have been denouncing the E.U. ‘s complicity in the enslavement of people in Libya for several years and are calling for the E.U. to cancel this agreement.

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