Italy forces migrants back to Libyan abuse
- Bill Frelick is Human Rights Watch‘s refugee policy director and the author of “Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of MIgrants and Asylum Seekers“. The opinions expressed are his own. -
On May 6, for the first time since World War II, a European state ordered its coast guard and naval vessels to intercept and forcibly return boat migrants on the high seas without screening to determine whether any passengers needed protection or were particularly vulnerable. That state was Italy; the receiving state was Libya. The Italians left the exhausted passengers on a dock in Tripoli, where the Libyan authorities immediately detained them.
Since then, Italian patrol boats have continued to force the boat migrants, mostly Africans, back to Libya. Some of the operations are coordinated by Frontex, the European Union’s external borders migration control agency.
The policy is an open breach of Italy’s legal obligation not to commit refoulement—the forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.
Today, Human Rights Watch issues a report on Libya’s mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers. It is based on 91 in-depth, private interviews with migrants who went through Libya to Italy or Malta, where they could speak to us without fear of retribution.
A 32-year-old Nigerian I interviewed in Sicily told me how the Libyan authorities treated him after they stopped his boat on October 20, 2008:
“We were in a wooden boat and Libyans in a [motorized inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us. They told us to return to shore. They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed. I don’t know the men who did the shooting, but they were civilians, not in uniforms. Then a Libyan navy boat came and got us and started beating us. They collected our money and cell phones. I think the zodiac boat was working with the Libyan navy. The Libyan navy took us back in their big ship and they sent us to Bin Gashir deportation camp. When we arrived there they immediately started beating me and the others. They beat some of the boys until they could not walk.”
Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has access to some migrant detention centers and Libyan organizations provide humanitarian services, there is no formal agreement to guarantee access. Furthermore, Libya has no asylum law or procedures. The authorities make no distinction among refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. “There are no refugees in Libya,” Brigadier General Mohamed Bashir Al Shabbani, director of the Office of Immigration at the General People’s Committee for Public Security, told us. “They are people who sneak into the country illegally and they cannot be described as refugees.” He added, “Anyone who enters the country without formal documents and permission is arrested.”
Despite Libya’s poor treatment of migrants, the EU, like Italy, increasingly sees Libya as a valuable partner for migration control. The European Commission is negotiating a general Framework Agreement for enhanced ties, and the Council has stated that negotiating a readmission agreement with Libya is an EU priority.
EU institutions and member states should not regard Libya as a partner for migration control until it formally ratifies the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, adopts a national asylum law and formally recognizes the UN High Commissioner for Refugees — and until its treatment of migrants and detention conditions conform to international standards.