A year after Italy-Libya migration deal, time to release thousands trapped in misery

Ahead of the first anniversary of Italy signing a deal with Libya to put in place measures to stop refugees and migrants from travelling to Europe, thousands of people remain trapped in abusive Libyan detention camps where torture is rife, Amnesty International said today.

“One year ago, the Italian government, backed by their European counterparts, agreed on a dodgy deal with the Libyan government that has trapped thousands in misery. People are being forced to endure torture, arbitrary detention, extortion and unthinkable conditions in detention centres run by the Libyan government,” said Iverna McGowan, Director of the Amnesty International, European Institutions Office.

People are being forced to endure torture, arbitrary detention, extortion and unthinkable conditions in detention centres run by the Libyan government
Iverna McGowan, Director of the Amnesty International, European Institutions Office

The Memorandum of Understanding signed on 2 February 2017 agreed that Italy would work with Libya’s military and border control forces “to stem the influx of illegal migrants”, thereby preventing migrants – as well as refugees – from reaching Europe. The Italian strategy was part of a broader European approach, and indeed was endorsed the very next day by European leaders in the ‘Malta Declaration’.

Since then, the Italian government and the EU have provided the Libyan Coast Guard with boats, training and other assistance to patrol the sea and pull back refugees and migrants desperately trying to sail to Europe. In 2017, about 20,000 people were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and taken back to Libya’s notorious detention centres.

“Europe urgently needs to put concern for basic human dignity at the centre of its migration policies. While Italy has been in the driving seat, all European governments cooperating with Libya on border control share responsibility for the unlawful containment of refugees and migrants in centres where unconscionable abuses take place,” said Iverna McGowan.

In the last few months, programmes for the ‘assisted voluntary return’ of migrants stranded in Libya have been expanded, with 19,370 returned to their country of origin in 2017. Smaller pilot projects for the resettlement of a few hundred refugees to France and Italy have also been successfully implemented.

People the world over have been shocked by the appalling situation of refugees and migrants in Libya
Iverna McGowan

Getting trapped people out of these despicable centres must be a priority but the evacuation of migrants through the voluntary return programme cannot be seen as a systemic solution. There must be full transparency on whether those returned are being given access to proper procedures and not returned to more abuse. In addition, more durable alternatives such as more resettlement and humanitarian visas must also be put in place.

“People the world over have been shocked by the appalling situation of refugees and migrants in Libya. In response, European governments have sought a quick-fix solution through evacuations with no guarantees that those returned can restart their lives in safety. We urge European leaders to ensure those guarantees are in place, and as a priority up their game on offering resettlement places and humanitarian visas for these people in desperate need,” said Iverna McGowan.

The organization is also urging European governments to work with Libyan authorities to secure an end to the policy of arbitrary and indefinite detention of refugees and migrants and to secure the formal recognition of UNHCR and its full mandate.