EU leaders reaffirm Libya migrant policy, putting refugees at risk

Though intended to reduce the pressure on Italy's southern ports, the EU's reaffirmed support for Libya's Coast Guard places migrants in a double-bind: Either risk death by crossing the Mediterranean Sea or face human rights abuses upon being returned to Libya.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Migrants and refugees peer over the edge of a rescue vessel belonging to Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms in the Mediterranean Sea on June 16, 2017. More than 600 migrants were rescued by a Spanish aid organization on June 15 as they attempted the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in packed boats from Libya.

European Union leaders on Thursday reaffirmed the need to help Libya prevent migrants from being smuggled to Europe, despite renewed opposition from human rights groups that such a policy is "reckless" given Libya's lawlessness.

Interior ministers meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, also called for aid groups conducting rescue operations in the Mediterranean to follow a code of conduct, after prosecutors in Italy have accused some of complicity with Libyan-based smugglers.

And the ministers vowed to crack down on countries that refuse to take their nationals home when their asylum bids fail in Europe, including imposing limits to visa programs.

"This is an unprecedented initiative," Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said.

The ministers met as Italy has increased complaints that it can no longer shoulder the burden of Europe's migrant crisis alone. Italy has threatened to close its ports to non-Italian flagged rescue ships in hopes of forcing other European countries to take them in.

The interior ministers mentioned "disembarkation," issues in their final communique, but offered no details or commitments.

Ahead of the meeting, Amnesty International issued a report highly criticizing the EU emphasis on helping Libya better patrol its coasts to prevent migrants from leaving, saying the policy shift risked victimizing desperate migrants even more.

Not only do they face the risk of dying at sea, they risk grave human rights abuses once they are returned to Libya and trapped there, the human rights group said.

More than 2,000 migrants to Europe have died at sea so far this year while over 73,380 have reached Italy. By year's end, the number of arrivals is expected to match or exceed the 181,400 who made it in 2016, which was more than in the two previous years, the report said.

The EU has been casting about for solutions, notably looking to Libya, which has two rival governments, for help preventing departures. The EU is focusing in particular on equipping and training the Libyan coast guard and navy to conduct sea rescues and to lead the fight against smuggling and trafficking networks.

Amnesty said it was "deeply problematic" to unconditionally fund and train Libya, where human rights are lacking and the coast guard has been known for violence and even smuggling.

The group cited an August incident off Libya's coast in which attackers shot at a Doctors Without Borders rescue boat. A UN panel of experts on Libya later confirmed that two officers from a coast guard faction were involved.

In May, the Libyan coast guard intervened in a search-and-rescue operation another non-governmental organization was performing. The coast guard officers threatened migrants with weapons, took command of their wooden boat, and took it back to Libya, Amnesty reported.

"The current situation with the Libyan coast guard is absolutely outrageous," Iverna McGowan, who leads Amnesty International's European Institutions Office, said in an interview in Brussels. "It is unconscionable that the EU ... would allow certain rescue operations that we know are inadequate and trust that with people's lives."

Amnesty is not alone in its concern.

The search-and-rescue director for Save the Children, Rob MacGillivray, said in a statement that rescued migrants have recounted horrors from Libya, including claims of sexual assaults, sales to others for work, and whippings and electrical shocks in detention centers.

"Simply pushing desperate people back to Libya, which many describe as hell, is not a solution," MacGillivray said.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitri Avramopoulos conceded at a recent news conference in Paris that the EU is drawing on a country in "very precarious conditions."

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