On Monday, August 6, the Italian parliament voted to donate twelve rescue boats to the Libyan coastguard, perpetuating a policy that endangers the lives of refugees and migrants. Less than a month ago, the Italian parliament also approved the donation of twelve speedboats to the Libyan coastguard, according to Amnesty International. These donations are part of a EU-approved policy to train the Libyan coastguard, and strengthen its capability to apprehend migrants and refugees at sea. According to the EU Observer, the EU has also funded the training of 237 Libyan coastguard officers to man the recently donated boats.
The Italian Ministry of Transport said in a statement that the new policy aims to save lives, while discouraging refugee boats from heading to Italy. It is clear, however, that the policy’s true aim is to return migrants and refugees to Libya, rather than ensure their safety. In what research initiative Open Migration refers to as “pushback by proxy,” refugees intercepted by the Libyan coastguard are being returned to unsafe conditions in Libya.
As Italy is working to increase the capacity of the Libyan coastguard, it is also restricting the movement of NGO rescue vessels, which are trying to aid refugee boats in distress. In June 2018, the Italian government implemented a blockade on NGO rescue ships disembarking at Italian ports. This has caused delays in responding to the needs of stranded migrants and refugees, leading to increased suffering, and in many cases, death. According to Human Rights Watch, the Italian maritime rescue center instructs boats in distress and rescue vessels to call the Libyan coastguard, compounding delays and endangering passengers.
Increased focus on strengthening the Libyan coastguard illustrates the Italian government’s modus operandi – ensuring that refugees do not reach Italy’s shores. Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and according to Human Rights Watch, does not have refugee laws protecting refugees. This, together with the unsafe conditions in its detention facilities, means Libya is not considered a “safe port.” Vessels from countries that are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention cannot legally return refugees to Libya, as they would thereby violate the “non-refoulement” principle, and expose these refugees to human rights violations.
Indeed, migrants and refugees are facing horrible circumstances both during their journeys and after being returned to Libya. A new briefing by Amnesty International, Between the devil and the deep blue sea. Europe fails refugees and migrants in the Central Mediterranean, highlights cases in which the Libyan coastguard has been accused of either harming migrants or leaving them to die. In July 2018, sea rescue NGO Proactiva Open Arms said in a statement to Reuters that three migrants aboard a vessel off the Libyan coast had been left to die by the Libyan coastguard. According to the NGO, they had refused to board a Libyan vessel during a sea rescue. In response, the Libyan coastguard damaged their boat and left them behind. Two of the three perished at sea.
For the refugees and migrants that are, in fact, returned to Libya, inadequate and cruel conditions await them in the country’s official and unofficial detention centers. According to the Amnesty International report, there are now more than 10,000 refugees and migrants officially detained in Libya, including 2,000 women and children, who were intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard.
Rather than pursuing a policy that clearly violates human rights, Italy, as well as the EU, must allocate funding and training efforts to creating safe, legal pathways for migrants and refugees to apply for asylum. Instead of supplying the Libyan coastguard with boats, Italy should train the coastguard to respond to emergencies in a humane way that follows international standards, and ensure that refugees are not held indefinitely in facilities that violate their human rights.