Following the sinking of their boat off the Libyan coast on 14 February, at least 73 people trying to reach Europe died or disappeared. In total, around 284 people have already lost their lives in 2023 along the Central Mediterranean route, which IOM defines as the “world’s deadliest migratory sea crossing”.
With its obsession to reduce migration along the Mediterranean routes at any cost, the European Union has tightened its external borders and reinforced detention facilities in third countries. In Libya, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are arbitrarily intercepted at sea and imprisoned in inhuman detention facilities, where they are subjected to horrific forms of violence and abuse. They run the risk of being brutally tortured by traffickers or forcibly sent back to life-threatening situations in their home countries.
In 2022, some 1,417 people who managed to embark from Libya tragically lost their lives along the Central Mediterranean route due to the dangerous nature of the journey and the increasingly scarce search and rescue (SAR) operations. A further 56,515 people were unlawfully intercepted and returned to the unsafe third countries from which they had embarked, including Libya. EU countries routinely look the other way in the face of these massive human rights violations, demonstrating that their priority is pursuing their own strategic interests as opposed to protecting people and saving the thousands of lives that are destroyed every year due to their policies—while also trying to hide by saddling non-governmental organisations (NGOs) rescuing human beings at sea with false accusations of human trafficking.
Memorandum of Understanding between Libya and Italy
The Italian government and the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord signed a cruel Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 2 February 2017, which is an EU-sponsored agreement aimed at securing national borders, eliminating irregular migration and human trafficking, and strengthening cooperation in development. Since the creation of this MoU, Libya has been exploiting the EU’s desire to outsource migration management to third countries due to the existence of the Schengen Area, in order to promote its own strategic interests. Thus, instead of concluding the agreement between countries to help human beings in danger, Libya uses migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as leverage to gain economic and political advantage from the EU, whose goal is to keep vulnerable people out at all costs, even at the expense of their lives.
The EU and Italy support a defensive deterrence strategy to address the issue of migration flows with this harsh agreement, which is based on a security approach designed to keep migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers out, rather than protect these individuals. The MoU stipulates that both Italy and the EU provide technical and financial support to Libya for the purpose of strengthening the surveillance capacities of its Coast Guard. In turn, Libyan authorities concentrate their efforts on preventing people from reaching Europe, by trying to intercept all those who have embarked on trips across the Mediterranean Sea. According to Article 2 of the MoU, EU and Italian funds must be allocated to financing temporary hosting camps or reception centres controlled by the Libyan Interior Ministry for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the country, prior to their voluntary return or repatriation.
The real consequences of the MoU —which has outraged civil society, human rights organisations, and NGOs—are devastating for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, who are subjected to unimaginable suffering. The human rights of these people are extensively and systematically violated from the moment they enter Libya, following hazardous journeys through the desert and/or their interception at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard, to their eventual arbitrary imprisonment in brutal detention centres for indefinite periods of time. The atrocities committed against those in the prisons, who are guilty of nothing more than seeking safety for themselves and their families, unequivocally demonstrate that these individuals are being deprived of their fundamental humanity and dignity.
Some of these detention centres are funded by the EU and Italy, while others are “unofficial” and controlled by armed militias dominating Libya’s southern border, where human rights conditions are even worse. In these prisons, more akin to barbaric cages, individuals are severely exploited, abused, tortured, trafficked, and subjected to various other forms of violence and extortion. In addition, basic health standards are not met—people are crammed into small spaces, deprived of running water, food, and latrines, and exposed to diseases that spread easily and denied access to medical care. These inhuman conditions sometimes even result in the death of innocent victims, whose families are not informed of their loved one’s burial place. According to several survivors’ testimonies, traffickers and smugglers frequently torture those imprisoned in order to extort money from their families with which to finance illicit activities, and in exchange, will help them board precarious boats to Europe.
Usually, boats leave at night to avoid migrants being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to detention centres, which is particularly significant given the fact that crossing the Mediterranean Sea in small, unsteady ships is already extremely dangerous. In part because Italy and the EU have passed on the responsibility for SAR operations to Libya, thousands of people tragically die in the Mediterranean Sea every year. Furthermore, individuals’ risk of being forcibly sent back to countries of origin where their lives are in danger violates their right to seek international protection in other, safer states.
Despite these ongoing serious human rights violations, the only way for many people to reach safety remains passing through Libya and crossing the Mediterranean Sea. It is alarming that instead of firmly condemning the heinous crimes committed against innocent victims, the EU and Italy continue to collaborate with Libya, enabling these atrocious acts of violence, as evidenced by the recent renewal in November 2022 of the MoU for another three years.
Violations of international law instruments as a result of MoU
The impossibility for people to leave for Europe, their arbitrary imprisonment in detention centres, where they are subjected to inhuman treatment, and their forced returns entail the violation of several international human rights law instruments. Italy is not free of international obligations and can still be held responsible for these human rights violations, even if it does not commit these horrific crimes directly, and instead transfers the burden of preventing people from crossing its waters to Libya. According to the International Law Commission and its Draft Articles on State Responsibility, perceived by the international community as customary law, Italy can still be held accountable for Libya’s interceptions at sea, human rights violations in its detention facilities, and forced returns, as it “directs or controls” or “aids or assists” Libya in committing these crimes of which it is aware.
The atrocities to which people are subjected under the MoU constitute serious human rights violations; Articles 6 and 7 of the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulate respect for the right to life of every human being and the prohibition of subjecting any person to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. These horrific acts also violate the prohibition for Italy and Libya to practice torture against individuals (Article 2, enshrined in the 1987 Convention against Torture), as well as the obligation not to send people back to home countries where their lives are in danger and they risk persecution (Article 3). The latter represents the principle of non-refoulement embodied in the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the related 1967 Protocol, which are also infringed by the Italian government. While Italy has ratified both instruments, which promote a protected category of migrants, namely refugees, and advocate for non-refoulement (Article 33), Libya has signed neither and has no asylum law. However, because this principle belongs to customary international law, Libya consequently violates it.
The principle of non-refoulement is also expressed in the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights (Article 19), which Italy does not respect. Moreover, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) envisages the right to life (Article 2) and forbids torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3), as well as the collective expulsion of aliens (Protocol 4, Article 4), another instrument broken by the Italian government due to the MoU. Finally, Italy violates the EU Common Asylum System, since the Libyan authorities intercept people at sea and return them without processing anyone.
Central Mediterranean: deadliest migration route
Despite the many desperate and ruthless attempts by the EU and Italy to stop migration flows at any cost, the total number of attempted crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, arrivals in Europe, and deaths along the routes has increased over the past three years. In 2020, some 114,747 individuals attempted to reach European shores, of whom only 67,561 (59%) managed not to be intercepted and arrive in Europe, while 1,449 people died on the high-risk journey. In 2021, some 194,523 people tried to leave for Europe, but only around 113,535 arrived (58%), whereas 2,062 people died. As for 2022, 253,245 people attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea, of whom some 144,802 reached Europe (57%), while about 2,406 people died. In total, some 25,959 people have tragically lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, 20,419 of them along the Central Mediterranean route.
With its main point of departure in Libya and arrival in Italy, the Central Mediterranean route is the deadliest migration path. Libya’s proximity to Europe and relatively accessible southern border, combined with its political instability, corruption, and rampant crime, explain the country’s key role in one of the easiest and most common migration routes, which is also the deadliest route due to the life-threatening journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Around 1,000 of 1,449 total deaths in 2020 occurred along this central route, and just 36,438 of 62,795 people who tried to complete the route made it to Europe. In 2021, 1,553 of 2,062 total deaths at sea—more than three quarters of the total number of fatalities—occurred along the central route, with only 68,390 of 125,193 people who attempted the route reaching Europe. Finally, 1,417 of 2,406 people who died in the Mediterranean Sea lost their lives along the central route in 2022, with 105,574 of 163,506 people who tried to cross this route ultimately arriving in Europe.
The tremendous physical and psychological suffering to which individuals in Libya have been subjected highlights the years-long prioritisation by the EU and Italy of their inhuman goal of keeping people out by any means rather than addressing the serious human rights violations they endure, even at the cost of violating the fundamental rights that the EU itself defends. Although the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC) both define the mistreatment of people in Libya as possible crimes against humanity and war crimes, the MoU continues to be supported for the sixth year by the EU and Italy, with the latter going so far as to sign a law decree hindering NGOs’ SAR operations and conclude a major gas deal with Libya in January 2023.
The EU and Italy must take immediate action to completely overturn the Italy-Libya MoU without further delay. They should promote safe and legal migration routes or “humanitarian corridors” in order to grant international protection to all people with credible asylum claims and prohibit their forced return, as well as tackle the issue of human traffickers and prevent more tragic fatalities at sea. After all, the EU itself has proved capable of receiving around four million Ukrainian refugees in the last year alone, while only 144,802 individuals reached European shores via the Mediterranean Sea in 2022. Moreover, the EU and Italy must make their support conditional on Libya’s compliance with international human rights standards, so as to eradicate the inhuman abuse of people in detention facilities.