Skip to main content

(Brussels) - European Union military action against human smuggling networks should not put the lives and rights of migrants and asylum seekers in jeopardy, Human Rights Watch said today. The Council of the European Union agreed on May 18, 2015 to create a naval operation, EUNAVFOR Med, to identify, capture, and destroy boats used by smugglers in the Mediterranean.

“Smugglers and traffickers often show a complete disregard for human life and dignity, and they should be held to account, but military action could expose migrants and asylum seekers to serious risks,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division. “Saving lives at sea and bringing people at risk in the Mediterranean safely to EU shores should be the top priority.”

The EU should assess carefully the short- and long-term human rights implications of any operation, including the risk that it will increase the dangers of boat migration in the Mediterranean, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should also assess the risk of trapping migrants and asylum seekers in Libya, where they are often subjected to violence and abuse and have no possibility of lodging asylum claims.

Migrants intercepted by EU vessels in the Mediterranean, including those participating in EUNAVFOR Med, should be taken to safe ports in the EU, where those asking for protection or indicating a fear of return should undergo asylum screening. Under no circumstances should the EU transfer boat migrants to the Libyan coast guard or land them in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.

The Council decision foresees beginning the operation with surveillance and patrols. If EU member states then agree to proceed, the second phase will include boarding, searching, seizing and diverting suspected smuggling boats, followed by “rendering inoperable” the suspect boats.

The internationally recognized government in Libya has said it opposes EU action in its territory or territorial waters. Two governments are vying for legitimacy in Libya, one internationally recognized government based in Tobruk and Al-Bayda in the east and another self-declared authority based in Tripoli in the west, from which the vast majority of boats depart.

Regardless of the area of operation, EU vessels participating in the planned naval operation are subject to the jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires designing, planning, and implementing all operations with full respect for rights, including the right to life, liberty and security, an effective remedy, and the prohibition of torture. The requirements prohibit sending anyone to a country where they risk torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or threats to their lives or freedoms, the non-refoulement principle.

The mission is part of the EU’s response to the crisis in the Mediterranean. Since the beginning of 2015, at least 1,780 migrants and asylum seekers have died attempting the sea journey. The EU has stepped up search-and-rescue operations, and over 62,000 people have reached the EU so far in 2015 by sea, crossing the central Mediterranean mainly from Libya to Italy and Malta, and the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Statistics from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, show that 60 percent of those who arrived by sea so far this year were from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Somalia – all countries experiencing widespread political violence and/or repression.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, on May 13 issued proposals toward a “European Agenda on Migration.” The proposals include positive steps, such as the creation of an EU-wide refugee resettlement plan and a relocation mechanism to more equitably distribute responsibility for asylum seekers among EU member states, Human Rights Watch said. Several EU member states, including the UK, France, Hungary, and Poland, have already voiced their unwillingness to participate in these responsibility-sharing proposals.

The majority of the proposals, however, focus on measures to limit arrivals, including through enhancing immigration controls in sending and transit countries, regional development, and the creation of a pilot “multi-purpose center” in Niger to provide information, local protection, and resettlement opportunities. These measures should be carefully designed to improve respect for human rights and foster conflict resolution in sending countries, Human Rights Watch said.

They also should improve the capacity of transit countries to protect and integrate refugees, including through the creation of fair and efficient asylum systems that ensure that asylum claims are properly screened with a right to appeal rejections. Such measures should scrupulously ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not forcibly returned to persecution or other serious harm and that no one is prevented from fleeing threats to their life or freedom.

Many, if not most, migrants and asylum seekers entering the EU irregularly willingly pay smugglers to facilitate their travel, though smugglers often deceive them about the context or conditions under which they will be transported, including by putting them in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. There are also trafficking victims among those arriving by sea and by land, who are deceived or forced to travel and who are held for ransom or otherwise abused and exploited.

Migrants and asylum seekers interviewed in Italy in May told Human Rights Watch about abuses they suffered along the migration routes from the Horn of Africa and in Libya. These included being held hostage for months in the Sahara desert in grueling, violent conditions until relatives transfer money to traffickers; beatings with wooden and iron pipes, rubber hoses, and whips; shooting deaths for attempted escapes; forced labor; and virtual detention before departure for Europe in unsanitary, overcrowded smuggler-run “safe houses” in Libya.  Smugglers routinely overload unseaworthy boats and provide insufficient food, water, and fuel for the journey.

Libya has long served as both a destination country and as a transit country for sub-Saharan Africans, Syrians and others seeking to reach the EU. Human Rights Watch has documented torture—including whippings, beatings, and electric shocks—as well as overcrowding, dire sanitation conditions, and lack of access to medical care in migrant detention centers in Libya in mid-2014 and May 2015.

The May interviews in Italy indicated that increasing lawlessness and generalized violence in Libya due to the ongoing hostilities are driving some migrants to leave. Some said that they would have remained in Libya and not attempted the dangerous sea crossing to the EU if Libya were not so dangerous. Livinus, a 20-year-old Nigerian who had gone to Libya to find work in 2013, told Human Rights Watch, “You see them pump up the [inflatable] boat, put one hundred people on it, and you know it’s risky. I wouldn’t have taken that risk except for the problems in Libya.”

There are no easy short term solutions, but the EU needs to increase safe and legal channels into the EU as a more effective long term solution than destroying boats, Human Rights Watch said.

 “Destroying suspected smugglers’ boats might temporarily prevent a person from boarding an unseaworthy vessel, but the consequences don’t end there,” Sunderland said. “ The EU needs to be honest in assessing how its intervention will push desperate people to take even more dangerous journeys, what becomes of people in need of protection seeking to leave an increasingly chaotic and violent Libya, and how this squares with international obligations.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.