• Sarah Kane

The E.U. and Italy Must End their Cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard

October 27, 2021

By Sarah Kane

A Libya coastguard official with people rescued from the sea (Jawashi/AFP/Getty Images)

While the flow of refugees and migrants continues increasing around the world, those fleeing to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea are at extreme risk not only from the dangerous conditions at sea but also from violence and detainment by the Libyan coast guard.


The European Union and Italy fund and train the Libyan coast guard, which is tasked with intercepting refugees attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean to reach Europe. The practice began in 2016 when gains by far-right parties and rising anti-migrant sentiment pushed the E.U. to outsource its rescue efforts. This partnership has led to even more undue suffering for migrants and refugees. Providing training, funding, and ships to Libya did reduce the number of migrant arrivals, but it also increased the risk of death at sea from “1 in 50 in 2017 to 1 in 35 in 2018.”


It’s clear from the numbers alone that the Libyan coast guard does not do its due diligence to keep migrants at sea safe. Leaked transcripts of calls between the Italian and Libyan coast guards demonstrate difficulties in contacting Libyan authorities and their apathy towards migrants in danger of capsizing. For example, on June 30, 2021, Sea-Watch, a German sea rescue non-profit, filmed a Libyan coast guard ship chasing and shooting at a migrant boat.


When the Libyan coast guard intercepts migrant boats, the migrants are brought to Libya’s notorious detention centers, where well-documented inhumane conditions and human rights violations are rampant. Libya’s Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) has even integrated some informal militia-created centers into its system of migrant detention centers, further legitimizing abuse against migrants.


The E.U. knows about these human rights violations. While officials state that they want to end the abuse, this is little more than lip service. They have next to no insight into the inner workings of the Libyan coast guard or DCIM. The E.U. and Italy’s continued financial and material support facilitates the cycle of abuse against migrants.


By continuing their partnership with the Libyan coast guard, the E.U. and Italy demonstrate that they prioritize limiting the flow of migrants over the rights and lives of individuals fleeing persecution, violence, or other harsh conditions in their home countries. To claim that this partnership has anything to do with humanitarian priorities is insincere and shameful. The truth is European states want to avoid legal responsibility for migrants by keeping them from reaching their borders.


A number of non-governmental organizations are seeking avenues to hold the E.U. and Italy legally responsible for their role in the abuse of migrants by Libyan authorities both at sea and in detention centers. Their partnerships are specifically designed to take advantage of a loophole in international human rights law regarding states that facilitate the human rights violations of other states. Lawyers have called for the International Criminal Court to investigate the E.U.’s complicity, while others have filed complaints with the United Nations Human Rights Council, the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Court of Auditors.


However, there are fears that these legal efforts are too slow-moving to address the growing trend of European states partnering with third countries to conduct migrant pushbacks at sea.


On October 14, 2021, a commercial ship captain was convicted for returning 101 migrants to Libya in 2018 and sentenced to a year in prison. The captain’s forced return of migrants to Libya, which the U.N. Refugee Agency and E.U. do not consider a safe port, constituted “abandonment of minors and vulnerable people.” His conviction was a win for human rights and aid groups who continue to protest the E.U. and Italy’s partnership with the Libyan coast guard.


However, this conviction raises questions. If the E.U. recognizes that Libya is not a safe port, then why do they outsource sea rescue efforts to Libya’s coast guard? Are the E.U. and Italy not guilty of abandonment as well?


The Libyan coast guard has intercepted more than 25,000 migrants in 2021 alone. By partnering with the coast guard, the E.U. and Italy are complicit in severe abuses against these migrants, many of which will be arbitrarily and indefinitely detained.


Until Libyan authorities end their policy of arbitrary detention, human rights violations in detention centers, and reckless behavior towards migrant boats, the E.U. and Italy must not cooperate with the Libyan coast guard.