By Marwa Mohamed*, Head of Advocacy and Outreach at Lawyers for Justice in Libya, 12.9.2019.
The aerial bombardment of a detention centre located on the outskirts of the Libyan capital on 2 July, left at least 46 dead and 130 injured. All of those dead and injured were refugees and migrants. A deliberate attack on a detention centre, where hundreds of men, women and children are held, constitutes a war crime. It is important to note that these victims were in the Tajoura detention centre as a result of European Union (EU) policies.
The EU policy of containment, primarily through Operation Sophia, has meant that since 2017, Europe has relied on the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG), entrusting it to carry out search and rescue operations at sea. The policy, and the outsourcing of search and rescue to the Coast Guard, is a way to counter the European Court of Human Rights rulings in the Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy case, which found Italy’s pervious policy of pushing back migrants to Libya illegal. Now that Italy and the EU cannot push migrants and refugees rescued at sea back, the Coast Guard has been empowered to pull them back into Libya instead.
Part of Operation Sophia mandate has been a “train and equip” component; the EU has provided the LCG with training and equipped it. This includes restoring and returning six ships previously provided to Libya under the Italy ‘Treaty of Friendship’ intended to carry out interceptions. With very limited vetting, no accountability, or conditions – and human rights making up only 0.5% of LCG training – it is of little surprise that the EU’s chosen partners have been implicated in heinous violations including the shooting of migrants. A policy by Italy, which has included the penalisation of humanitarian assistance at sea, has only compounded the dangerous reality for those trying to escape the war in Libya.
It is well known that all of the migrants intercepted by the Coast Guard are disembarked in Libya. If they are not handed over to people smugglers, they are immediately transferred to detention centres run by the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) under the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). There are, on average, around 4,000 individuals held in these centres at any given moment and their fate is precarious at the best of times, Many are indefinitely detained without charge and face torture, rape, extortion and being sold into bonded labour, often referred to as modern slavery. With the escalation of the conflict and the shifting of the frontlines, we will see more incidents of centres being abandoned by DCIM personnel and refugees and migrants being left to perish at the hands of warring belligerents. This was the case during the August and September 2018 Tripoli clashes or worse as we saw in Tajoura, direct casualties of the war. The EU has also chosen to return migrants and refugees to a state that has no asylum law and does not recognise refugee status. The only status an undocumented traveller has in Libya is that of an illegal migrant and that is a criminal offence that can carry a sentence of forced labour and eventually deportation.
The current escalation of violence in Libya has been ongoing since 4 April 2019. Despite several incidents that endangered migrants and refugees, including an attack by a gunman on a detention centre to the south of Tripoli, the EU has not re-evaluated its policy in Libya.
Meanwhile, Brussels remains silent despite the flow of heavy artillery into the country, including reports of F16 fighter jets being delivered to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who are implicated in the attack of Tuesday night. These weapons often end up in the hands of untrained personnel, some possibly implicated in war crimes. With impunity rife in Libya, the international community split in its approach, and several states directly implicated in the conflict as illustrated by the blatant disregard of the United Nations Security Council imposed arms embargo, the war is likely to protract. Under such conditions, migrants and refugees will become even more vulnerable than they are already.
It is no longer acceptable for the EU to apply a “business as usual” approach to the situation in Libya. The EU must acknowledge its responsibility for a policy that has resulted in migrants and refugees being trapped in a conflict with no escape and who are now being targeted, abused, and killed. The EU policy of containment must be brought to an end. A policy to close all migrant and refugee detention centres must be adopted. Safe passage to Europe must be provided to these individuals who have suffered, and continue to suffer, the most heinous human rights violations.
(*) Marwa Mohamed is Head of Advocacy and Outreach at Lawyers for Justice in Libya. LFJL’s #RoutestoJustice programme works to promote the rights of migrants and refugees in Libya and to provide them with access to justice using domestic courts, regional human rights courts and mechanisms and international human rights mechanisms and tribunals. This is the latest post in our symposium with Justice in Conflict on Libya and International Justice. Salah Marghani’s contribution to the symposium has gone up at JiC and you can find it here.