At the European Council, Refugee and Migrant Rights Should Come First

At the upcoming European Council meeting in Brussels on June 22 and 23, European Union (EU) leaders will discuss the Central Mediterranean migration route and, as per the meeting’s agenda, will “assess the implementation of measures taken to stem the migration flow” on that route.

Refugees International (RI) urges EU leaders to put the rights of refugees and migrants above political considerations currently driving Europe’s actions in the Central Mediterranean and makes the following recommendations:

Strengthen Search and Rescue: EU leaders should either expand the mandates of European operations in the Mediterranean (Frontex and EUNAVFOR Med) to include search and rescue or create a new naval operation dedicated to such operations and adequately resource such missions.

Avoid Complicity in Abuses: Without greater safeguards that ensure the safety of those returned to Libya, EU measures designed to keep people from reaching Italy’s shores are inappropriate and risk making the EU complicit in grave abuses against refugees and migrants inside Libya. The EU should work with the United Nations on the deployment of independent human rights monitors in places where refugees and migrants are forced to disembark and in the detention facilities where they are held and to report publicly on what they observe.

Increase Monitoring: EU leaders should closely and continuously assess actions carried out by the Libyan coast guard during search and rescue operations.

Foremost at the meeting, EU leaders should take urgent action to prevent further loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea. More than 2,000 people have been reported as dead or missing since the beginning of 2017, with the vast majority on the Central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy. Since 2014, more than 14,000 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe. It is the deadliest migration route in the world: between January 1 and June 18, 2017, 70 percent of deaths of migrants and refugees worldwide occurred in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In this context, it is alarming that search and rescue is not part of the core mandate of the EU Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) and of EUNAVFOR Med’s Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean. Between January and April 2017, Frontex rescued 2,730 people and EUNAVFOR Med rescued 3,141. In the same period, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) carrying out search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean and the Italian coast guard rescued far more: NGOs rescued 12,647 people, and the Italian coast guard rescued 10,673. EU leaders should either expand the mandates of Frontex and EUNAVFOR Med to include search and rescue or create a new naval operation dedicated to such operations, adequately resourcing that effort. 

Without greater safeguards that ensure the safety of those returned to Libya, EU measures designed to keep people from reaching Italy’s shores are inappropriate and risk making the EU complicit in grave abuses against refugees and migrants inside Libya. The EU is providing the Libyan coast guard with training and equipment to conduct more interception and rescue operations in Libyan territorial waters, even though the Libyan coast guard returns people back to Libyan soil where, in the majority of cases, they are arbitrarily held in detention centers in which they risk torture, rape, and malnutrition.

It is alarming that search and rescue is not part of the core mandate of...the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean.

In a recent report, Refugees International documented severe abuses against refugees and migrants in official detention centers in Libya and at the hands of human smugglers. The EU and EU member states should not continue to empower and assist the Libyan coast guard to return refugees and migrants to Libyan territory in the absence of measures to ensure that those who are returned are protected against abuse. To this end, RI urges the EU to work with the United Nations on the deployment of independent human rights monitors in places where refugees and migrants are forced to disembark and in the detention facilities where they are held, and to report publicly on what they observe.

EU leaders should also closely monitor actions by the Libyan coast guard during search and rescue operations. In recent weeks, NGOs undertaking such operations have documented actions by members of the Libyan coast guard that endangered the lives of refugees and migrants. At their meeting in Brussels, EU leaders should reflect on these incidents and ensure that the training and support they are providing to the Libyan coast guard do not in any way contribute to abuses against refugees and migrants at sea or on land.

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