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Handing Over of Search Boat Makes EU More Complicit in Abuses

This week, the European Union handed over in Italy a search and rescue vessel to Libyan authorities intended for abusive Libyan Coast Guard forces and promised four more, without any apparent attempt to vet the human rights practices of the coast guard, thus making the EU more complicit in human rights abuses in the Mediterranean.

While the single boat handed over by Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement is a pittance within an 800 million Euro project to “stop the illegal migration to Europe” from North Africa,  it will tie the EU more directly to abuses that inevitably occur when the Libyan Coast Guards intercepts people at sea and brings them back to Libya.

For years the EU has abdicated its primary responsibility of search and rescue in the Mediterranean, where thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have died while attempting to reach Europe from North Africa, particularly Libya. Instead, the EU and member countries have chosen to furnish money, vessels, training, and aerial surveillance to abusive Libyan armed groups so they can intercept and forcibly return people to Libya. There, these migrants face systematic and widespread abuses including torture, arbitrary detention, forced labor, and sexual assault.

Dodging this reality, Várhelyi insists the aid will reduce deaths and trafficking in the Mediterranean and make Europe safer. “Libya can continue to count on Europe’s support,” he stated, adding that the EU can “expect [Libya’s] continued commitment to deliver tangible results on the ground.”  The commissioner said nothing about the need to vet the human rights practices of the groups receiving EU support.

More than 24,684 people intercepted in the Mediterranean were forced back to Libya in 2022, and a staggering 25,313 at least have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.

To change this reality, the EU should stop supporting abusive militias and instead establish safe and legal pathways for migration. The EU and its member states should suspend cooperation with Libyan authorities until they ensure they are complying with the obligation not to return people to places where they face abuse, inhumane detention conditions, and lack of access to international protection. It is paramount the EU, with its significant means and technical capacities to take up its search and rescue responsibilities in the Mediterranean, focuses on saving lives and ensures people are disembarked in a safe port and never returned to the abuse they faced in Libya





31 JANUARY 2022

Over 82 000 refugees and migrants returned to Libya since deals were struck

Conditions for refugees and migrants in Libya ‘hellish’

The European Union must stop helping to return people to hellish conditions in Libya, Amnesty International said today as the bloc marks five years of formal cooperation to intercept refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The number of people intercepted at sea and returned to Libya in the last five years is over 82 000.

Men, women and children returned to Libya face arbitrary detention, torture, cruel and inhuman detention conditions, rape and sexual violence, extortion, forced labour and unlawful killings. Instead of addressing this human rights crisis, the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) continues to facilitate further abuses and entrench impunity, as illustrated by its recent appointment of Mohamed al-Khoja as director of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). Al-Khoja was previously in effective control of the Tariq al-Sikka detention centre, where extensive abuses have been documented.


In 2021, Libyan coastguards — supported by Italy and the EU — captured 32,425 refugees and migrants at sea and returned them to Libya. This is by far the highest figure on record and three times the number recorded the previous year. During the year, 1,553 people died or disappeared at sea in the central Mediterranean.

Libya: ‘No one will look for you’: Forcibly returned from sea to abusive detention in Libya

Europe: Plan of Action – Twenty steps to protect people on the move along the central Mediterranean route

In a report dated 17 January 2022, the Secretary-General of the United Nations said he felt “grave concern” at continuing human rights violations against refugees and migrants in Libya, including instances of sexual violence, trafficking and collective expulsions. The report confirms that “Libya is not a safe port of disembarkation for refugees and migrants” and reiterates a call to relevant Member States “to re-examine policies that support interception at sea and return of refugees and migrants to Libya”. The report also confirms that the Libyan Coast Guard has continued to operate in ways that put the lives and well-being of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea at grave risk.

Despite acknowledging this, an internal report by the Commander of the EU naval operation Eunavfor Med Irini, leaked by the Associated Press on 25 January 2022, confirms plans to continue capacity-building programmes for Libyan coastguards.   

Italy’s current deal with Libya expires in February 2023 but will renew automatically for another three years unless authorities cancel it before this November, as Amnesty International is calling on the Italian government to do.


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