Two United Nations human rights experts have expressed serious concern over a new European Commission policy on Mediterranean Sea rescues, warning that more people will drown.
“The EU’s proposed new action plan, including a code of conduct for organizations operating rescue boats, threatens life and breaches international standards by condemning people to face further human rights violations in Libya,” said the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, and the Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer.
The code of conduct, drawn up by Italy with the backing of Brussels, aims to stop privately-operated ships ferrying refugees to safety in Italy from waters off the Libyan coast. It is part of a wider EU plan to reduce the pressure of migrant arrivals. Libya has also announced a search and rescue zone beyond its territorial waters, and is restricting access to international waters by humanitarian vessels.
“The solution is not to restrict access to international waters or firing weapons to threaten boats, as Libya has reportedly done repeatedly. This will result in more deaths of migrants at sea and is in contravention of the obligation to rescue people in distress,” the experts said.
They added that international organizations were making “tremendous rescue efforts”, with their vessels providing up to 40% of all search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
The Special Rapporteurs expressed concern that the European Commission was trying to move Europe’s borders to Libya. They highlighted that, under international law, migrants should be allowed to disembark at the nearest port where their lives and freedom would not be threatened, and should then receive information, care and equitable processing of their asylum claims.
“Libya simply cannot be regarded as a safe place to disembark and the EU policy is in denial of this fact,” they said. “Migrants intercepted by the Libyan coast guard will face indefinite detention in dire and inhumane conditions, at risk of death, torture or other severe human rights violations, without any judicial review.”
Libyan detention centres were severely overcrowded with inadequate access to toilets, washing facilities, ventilation, food and clean water, they noted. Detainees also lacked access to a legal process or lawyers.
The human rights experts also highlighted that migrants in Libya risked labor exploitation and were vulnerable to other forms of contemporary slavery; while women were at risk of rape and other sexual violence.
They said it was vital for the EU and Libya to bring more European rescue boats to the coast of Libya, but warned that an Italian naval mission currently operating in Libyan waters could breach Italy’s obligations of non-refoulement, in providing logistical, technical and operational support to the Libyan coast guard.
“It is high time to tackle the real issue, which is the disproportionate impact on frontline States such as Italy and Greece, and relocate migrants and refugees to all Schengen Member countries, instead of supporting measures which drive migration further underground and increase human suffering, in violation of human rights law,” the Special Rapporteurs said.
“States should expand their visa regimes and provide more options for refugee settlement, temporary protection, visitors, family reunification, work, resident, retirement and student visas”, they added, “in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and to ensure that migrants no longer have to embark on such deadly journeys.”