European policies are endangering refugees in Libya and the central Mediterranean

The risk of death for asylum seekers and migrants crossing the central Mediterranean is one in 50. The vast majority – 95% – of those who attempt the passage have come via Libya, a country in domestic turmoil. A recent investigation by NewsDeeply details the impact of E.U. states’ politicking and policies on the security of vulnerable people who make the crossing, as well as those trapped inside Libya.

European leaders have been accused of prioritising an approach that seems tough on immigration, over one that responds in a responsible and sustainable manner to the crisis in Libya and the central Mediterranean.

The impact of this has been multifaceted: not only has it resulted in the ceding of primary search and rescue responsibility to NGOs, but it has encroached on EU policies from foreign affairs to aid and development. Giulia Lagana, E.U. migration and asylum analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, has said that “development targets, democracy and human rights, and even security in fragile areas, are being sidelined in the search for quick fixes to stem arrivals or step up migrant returns.”

Details of the central Mediterranean passage used by refugees, asylum seekers and migrants

The European response to the dangerous central Mediterranean passage has been limited at best. Since the closure of Italy’s commendable search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, the EU has failed to provide a service that prioritises rescue missions. Instead, privately funded charity boats have stepped in to the gap – and during the first three months of this year, the number of rescues by non-governmental organisations exceeded that of official coastguards. However, the success of such efforts was met with an unprecedented backlash.

The scale of physical, political and legal threats that ensued meant that by September 2017, only one private rescue vessel remained.

Threats to NGO efforts came from many different sources. Boats funded by far-right groups in Europe sought to intimidate, and on occasion inhibit, rescuers – though one such vessel was itself a beneficiary of non-governmental rescue efforts, after falling in to difficulties in August.

The last eighteen months have also seen a spike in the number of threatening incidents with supposed members of the Libyan coastguard. As NGOs come closer to Libyan waters, their presence threatens to disrupt the lucrative practice of intercepting refugees and migrants put to sea by rival smuggling networks, and selling them to detention centres on shore.

A new code of conduct prepared by the Italian Interior Ministry included a prohibition on NGOs’ use of flares and phones while at sea, and banned the transfer of those rescued from other ships to Italy. The code was highly controversial, within Italian political debates and beyond. MSF refused to sign, and argued that the new code would result in “more drownings.”

Recent negotiations between the Italian authorities and the Libyan coastguard are assumed to be responsible, at least in part, for the reduced number of people attempting to cross. However, collaboration with certain Libyan groups has been accused of promoting institutions that lack legitimacy, and in turn, precluding a lasting peace in the beleaguered country.

Furthermore, the international funds to improve conditions in detention centres have reportedly “created additional incentives for armed groups to seize control of DCIM centers, in search of money and legitimacy.”

Women refugees held in detention in Libya

In collaborating with Libyan groups to prevent people from attempting the crossing, rather than investing in search-and-rescue for those that do, European governments have been accused of leaving vulnerable people exposed to a litany of rights abuses.


Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees: it does not offer asylum, but rather detains undocumented refugees and migrants in deplorable conditions.

In September 2017, Joanne Liu (MSF’s International President) detailed the abuses, including rape, torture and slavery, that MSF has witnessed in Libyan detention centres. She wrote that “the reduced numbers of people leaving Libyan shores has been lauded by some as a success in preventing loss of life at sea, and smashing smugglers’ networks.”

“But with the knowledge of what is happening in Libya, that this should be lauded as a success demonstrates, at best, pure hypocrisy and at worse, a cynical complicity in the organised business of reducing human beings to merchandise in human traffickers’ hands.”

“European funding is helping to stop the boats from departing Libyan waters,”
she wrote, “but this policy is also feeding a criminal system of abuse.”


To read the full investigation by NewsDeeply, please click here.

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