Violence on land, violence at sea: Migrants in Libya between the Libyan hammer and the EU’s anvil

15 October 2021

Violence on land, violence at sea: Migrants in Libya between the Libyan hammer and the EU’s anvil

In Libya, the already dire situation for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees has been escalating to an unprecedented level of violence. Not only do migrants face widespread documented abuse from Libyan authorities on land, they are also violently intercepted at sea and forcibly returned (pulled back) to the country by Libya’s violent “Coast Guard” crews – who, despite their involvement in horrific violations – continue to be financially supported by the European Union and its Member States. EuroMed Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Libya Platform and the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) call on the EU to cease all support to Libya’s Coast Guards, to provide safe pathways for migrants and to re-establish an EU-coordinated Search and Rescue mechanism.

Violence on land: Latest updates

On 1 October 2021, Libyan security authorities carried out raids against thousands of migrants in the town of Gargaresh, in Tripoli, and detained 4,000 of them, most of them refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the following days, the number of detainees exceeded 5,000. They are kept in extremely overcrowded cells with little access to food or water. According to UNICEF, at least 1,000 captured women and children are in “immediate danger“. During the operations, one migrant was killed, and 15 others injured. According to the United Nations, unarmed migrants were harassed in their homes, beaten and shot. A Libyan government official said the authorities would “deport as many as possible” of the migrants to their home countries.

On 6 October 2021, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Libyan Coast Guards opened fire on approximately 500 migrants who were trying to escape from a detention centre in Gheriyan. At least four people died and many others were severely injured. The same happened on 8 October 2021, when migrants tried to escape from the Al-Mabani Collection and Return centre (Ghout al-Sha’al, Tripoli) and security officers killed six people according to the International Organisation for Migration and injured a yet-to-be determined number. 

On 14 October, the Public Prosecution announced that they had carried out an investigation into the killing of only one unidentified migrant in the Al-Mabani centre on 8 October, ordered the arrest of the suspected murderer and three of the centre’s officials, and started procedures to submit the head of the centre for investigation. 

Unprecedented levels of violence perpetrated in complete impunity

These latest attacks are not isolated incidents but are part of a larger inhumane system of unlawful detention, exploitation and abuse supported by Libyan authorities and enabled by European externalisation policies. In their semi-annual update on the human rights situation in Libya, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Libya Platform found evidence of continued systemic and grave human rights violations taking place in the country in complete impunity, most notably against migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. This violence illustrated the continued involvement of armed groups affiliated with Libyan state and security institutions and the urgent need for security sector reform. 

Additionally, in a recent report, the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya found evidence of war crimes committed since 2016 and stated that the abuses and inhumane acts committed against migrants, which are described as part of a systematic and widespread attack in furtherance of a State policy, may also amount to crimes against humanity. The Mission called on the international community to ensure that all agreements with Libya, particularly on migration, comply with International Human Rights Law and domestic humanitarian law.

A spiral of violence for which the EU shares responsibility 

The International Organisation for Migration, estimates at 1,178 the number of people who died trying to  cross the Central Mediterranean so far in 2021. But the real number is likely to be much higher. Delays and failures to launch search and rescue operations have led to a 249% increase in the number of deaths at sea in the first half of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020

So far in 2021, 26,000 migrants have managed to escape their Libyan prisons only to be intercepted at sea and returned to Libyan detention centres in operations coordinated by the Libyan Coast Guards, who are supported,  equipped, and trained by EU budget and Member States support.

Despite the fact that this tragic increase in deaths and illegal pushbacks in the central Mediterranean is a direct result of both Libyan and European authorities’ failure to uphold their obligations, the European Commission recently announced its aim to deliver new ‘P150’ class patrol boats to the Libyan Coast Guard that will be used to intercept and forcibly return migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees to the horrors of Libya.

The EU must stop supporting the Libyan Coast Guards

EuroMed Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Libya Platform and the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) call on the EU and its Member States to:

  • Immediately halt the provision of funding, equipment and training to the Libyan Coast Guard  until it stops carrying out illegal pushbacks and other grave human rights violations;
  • Re-establish an EU-coordinated Search and Rescue mechanism to prevent the tragic loss of lives in the Mediterranean Sea, and 
  • Provide immediate evacuation, regulated legal pathways and resettlement opportunities to migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees held in detention centres in inhumane conditions and subject to the most serious human rights violations, abuses and torture.