HRW urges Italy to suspend cooperation with Libya until Tripoli ends abusive treatment of migrants

HRW urges Italy to suspend cooperation with Libya until Tripoli ends abusive treatment of migrants
The rights group says Italy's changes to a 2017 agreement with Libya that facilitates the forced returns and abusive treatment of migrants are not sufficient.
3 min read
12 February, 2020
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have been intercepted and returned to Libya since 2017 [Getty]
Italy must suspend its support for the Libyan Coast Guard until it commits to ending abusive treatment of migrants, Human Rights Watch said on today.

It comes after Italian government announced it had proposed changes to a deal that facilitates the return of Europe-bound migrants to detention centres in Libya where detainees are at reportedly at risk of being raped and tortured.

The statement argues that the changes proposed to the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding on border control cooperation between Italy and Libya.

This includes closing detention centres and opening facilities under UN auspices and supporting voluntary returns from Libya to migrants' countries of origin - are not sufficient to ending the abuse.

"Italy can't paper over its complicity in the suffering of migrants and refugees who fall into the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard," said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. 

In-depth: Libya's peace summit promised to improve conditions for migrants. But will it deliver?

"Humanitarian rhetoric doesn't justify continued support to the Coast Guard when Italy knows people apprehended at sea will be returned to arbitrary detention and abuse," she added.

HRW pointed out that Italy's material and technical support for the Libyan Coast Guard, which operates under the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), has enabled it to intercept tens of thousands of people at sea.

Migrants are subsequently returned to "arbitrary, indefinite detention in facilities where they face a high risk of exploitation and violence, including rape", the statement said.

The MoU was automatically renewed for another three years on 2 February, to uproar among human rights defenders. According to UNHCR figures, Libyan authorities have intercepted and returned almost 40,000 since it was signed 3 years ago.

Last month, the UN's refugee agency announced it was forced to close the scandal-stricken Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) in Tripoli, citing safety issues connected to the fighting in the capital.

The centre was supposed to house people before their resettlement in Europe and elsewhere, but in reality it housed hundreds more, including those who had escaped or had been released from official detention centres since an offensive on the capital was launched by the Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA) in April 2019.

In November, the UN was accused of attempting to "starve out" refugees and asylum seekers in the GDF, after hundreds of new arrivals - including 100 minors - were not given food for weeks.

"Instead of tweaking the Memorandum of Understanding, the Italian authorities should insist on the closure of detention centers, direct its resources to supporting safe alternatives to detention, increase evacuations from Libya, including directly to Italy, and resume a leadership role in saving lives at sea," said Sutherland.

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