EU Complicit in Human Rights Abuses of Migrants

Photo by James Beheshti

This month, it was discovered that two new vessels had been added to the EU’s efforts to prevent migrants from reaching European soil. The rehabilitation of these vessels has been in process since 2019, when Euronews reported that the EU, working together with the Italian government, had reportedly funnelled a sum of €90m to the Libyan coastguard. These funds, initially earmarked for “poverty reduction”, have instead fuelled a policy that has contributed to human rights violations of migrants in Libya. Under international law, it is prohibited for states to assist other states in the enactment of human rights violations, and as such the EU could be liable for prosecution. 

The EU-sponsored Libyan Coast Guard has led to a dramatic reduction in the migrant flows across the Mediterranean Sea, and as such has been deemed a ‘success’. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as of July this year, Italy and Malta have seen a mere 13,000 migrants arrive at their shores – a sharp reduction from previous years where there have been as many as 180,000 migrant arrivals

Despite the hailed triumph of this project, humanitarian workers and journalists have conveyed the human reality which lies behind these figures, labelling the EU’s involvement an institutional assault on the human rights of those seeking a life free from danger. Despite the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) highlighting the insecurity that exists in Libya – a country torn apart by intensifying combat, the COVID-19 crisis and innumerable displaced peoples fleeing their homeland – the EU has persisted in their efforts to rehome these migrants in the country from which they are escaping. 

The EU’s involvement in such undertakings by the Libyan Coast Guard constitutes a clear breach of both human rights and international law. Recently, reports from the German NGO Sea-Eye accused the Libyan Coast Guard of wielding firearms at both rescuers and migrants. Furthermore, this September, the UNHCR claimed a Sudanese man had been shot dead mere moments after the coastguard had arrived at Libyan shores. There can be no doubt that the lack of monitoring and evaluation by the EU does a deadly disservice to migrants whose bodies are lugged from boat to shore and left vulnerable to imprisonment, human trafficking, and murder. Just this year, countless migrants have slipped from the safety-net of UN agencies and entered into the Libyan migration detention system – a business which generates funds for armed groups and often conscribes asylum seekers into military activities. 

Now that the EU’s complicity in such breaches of human rights law have come to light, questions have arisen which may signal an end to this inhumane project.  According to the Guardian, there are currently four submissions before international courts blaming the EU for both funding and directing the Libyan Coast Guard. However, as Matteo de Bellis – Amnesty International’s migration researcher – points out, ‘those international rules do not have a specific court where you can litigate them’, meaning that it is unclear where and when these cases will be heard. 

Thus, it remains to be seen whether the EU will be prosecuted in the near future. In the meantime, it appears that the endeavour will continue in the name of migration control. In this trade-off between upholding human rights and a persistence to reduce migration to the continent, it is obvious which policy objective is being sacrificed. 

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