The distance between human rights and the EU: the Libyan migration crisis

Published 9th July 2019

“From the big ship they were making calls, but said: ‘Sorry, we can’t take you, it’s not my fault, orders are that Libyans will come to take you’. Meanwhile, I could see people dying on the other boat, pieces of boat were floating and bodies too. [By the time] a small Libyan ship came to get us…all the people on the other dinghy had died.”

  • the words of 28-year-old Emmanuel, a Cameroonian refugee who fled the conflict and ended up adrift on a dinghy watching another sinking dinghy. Interview conducted by Amnesty International.

Many people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean, and roughly 53 people who might have shared the same fate, are alive today thanks to the brave actions of Carola Rackete, the captain of Sea Watch 3, a search and rescue vessel registered in the Netherlands. Her subsequent arrest has generated much discussion about Maritime Law, human trafficking, the Italian interpretation of the laws governing their territorial waters, and the duty of European states to share the burden of incoming migrants. But amidst all of this, let’s not forget the reason why Rackete was out at sea in the first place – she was there to rescue people in dire need and at serious risk of drowning.

Rackete, rescued 53  migrants who were drifting on a rubber boat as they tried to complete their journey to Europe. Rackete was at sea for 17 days negotiating with Italian officials in an attempt to bring the migrants and her crew of 20 to safety. The Italian government refused permission for the ship to dock and physically tried to prevent the Sea Watch 3 from making landfall. Rackete decided to berth her ship at the island of Lampedusa, Italy regardless. She was arrested on 29 June and 5 European states, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland, France, Portugal agreed to take her passengers.    

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini dubbed her a criminal, accused her of committing an act of war  by “resisting a warship”.  Upon her arrest Salvini reportedly tweeted “Mission accomplished,” and “Pirate ship seized, maximum fine for foreign NGO.” 

The valorous decision to rescue migrants and prioritise their lives, human rights and human dignity left Rackete potentially facing 10 years in prison and a fine of up to €50,000. Thankfully, she was cleared of those charges and released but remains under investigation for human trafficking. To many, she is a heroine and her actions have led to numerous campaigns in support of her and against what some have called the criminalisation of compassion. She has been applauded for doing the necessary work whilst EU politicians procrastinate and gamble with human life. 

Sea Watch have shown unwavering support for their captain with Chairman Johannes Bayer saying, “We are proud of our captain, she did exactly the right thing. She followed the law of the sea and brought people to safety…” Their mission is to conduct “civil search and rescue operations in the Central Med. In the presence of the humanitarian crisis, Sea-Watch provides emergency relief capacities, demands and pushes for rescue operations by the European institutions and stands up publicly for legal escape routes.” Their work remains crucial as thousands of people remain at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers who endanger people’s lives by putting them in vessels that are unfit and worse, wholly unseaworthy.

People from across the African continent, fleeing persecution, war, and poverty find themselves in Libya, in what will hopefully be a temporary stop before they make the dangerous voyage to Europe. According to CNN, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees end up in Libya whilst the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the figure at something between 700,000 and one million.  

The chilling 2017 CNN exposé of the slave markets in Libya revealed the horrific treatment of migrants at the hands of people smugglers who literally sell human beings to the highest bidder. According to the IOM many migrants are kidnapped by smugglers and held hostage until their family members can pay the ransom money. 

If they are not being tormented and abused by smugglers then they are being terrorised and violated by guards at the migration detention centres.  Migrants and refugees in Libya are arbitrarily detained, exploited, starved and treated without an iota of respect for life or human dignity.   

According to a March 2019 Amnesty International report, roughly 5000 people are currently being detained in migration detention centres established to hold migrants intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard as they head for Europe on their makeshift boats. Testimony from detainees include harrowing accounts of sexual assault, overcrowding, and beatings meted out by detention guards. 

To many, going back to Libya is worse than death, for example another man interviewed by Amnesty International whose dinghy was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard said  “I knew it was better to die than to go back”.  

Just last week on 3 July, up to 40 migrants and refugees were killed and 80 injured when the Tajoura Detention Centre was attacked in a military airstrike.

According to the Global Detention Project, Italy and the EU continue to strike controversial migration “control” deals with various actors in Libya aimed at reducing the number of people who attempt to traverse the Mediterranean. These arrangements include investing in detention centres, “paying militias to control migration” and supporting the Libyan Coast Guard to “rescue” and intercept migrants and refugees at sea, something that has led to the kind of tragedy described above by 28-year-old Emmanuel. 

In 2014-2018, Human Rights Watch reported that Italy and the EU committed at least 12 million euros to the migration detention centres despite numerous reports of grave human rights violations. Arrangements of this nature reportedly date back to the Gaddafi era, an endeavour the Global Detention Project described as a  ”multi-million-Euro ‘migration management’ project”. 

Detention centres are not the solution, let alone in the way in which they currently operate. The fact that Carola Rackete’s actions firstly, led to her arrest, and secondly, have been viewed as anything other than humane is a sad and deeply disturbing reflection of a failure to prioritise by Minister Matteo Salvini and those who share his views.

A document accusing the EU and its Member States of crimes against humanity has been submitted to the International Criminal Court. The file alleges that EU’s policies have resulted in (i) the deaths by drowning of thousands of migrants, ii) the refoulement of tens of thousands of migrants attempting to flee Libya, and iii) complicity in the subsequent crimes of deportation, murder, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, rape, persecution and other inhuman acts, taking place in Libyan detention camps and torture houses.”

Perhaps Rackete’s rescue mission and this submission to the ICC will be the wake-up call that politicians need. As you are reading this article, many more people are preparing to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. There are no easy solutions but the current state of affairs is no solution at all. Arresting captains of rescue ships, leaving migrants to die at sea or forcing them to go back to Libya are all travesties of justice of which the EU and its Member States should be ashamed.

**This article appeared first on the Opinio Juris blog on 8 July 2019.

** Featured image U.S. navy photo by Chief Information Systems Technician Wesley R. Dickey/Released

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