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Migrants on a boat that they tried to take to Italy, after being detained at a Libyan Navy base in Tripoli on September 20, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The EU and Italy have a hidden agenda in training Libyan naval forces to intercept smugglers.

Italy and the Netherlands began training Libyan coast guard and navy officers on Italian and Dutch navy ships in the Mediterranean earlier in October. The training is part of the European Union’s anti-smuggling operation in the central Mediterranean with the goal of enhancing Libya’s “capability to disrupt smuggling and trafficking… and to perform search-and-rescue activities.”

What might sound like a straightforward and even laudable initiative is actually fraught with legal and ethical questions.

First, what will happen to people intercepted or rescued by the Libyan coast guard and navy? It’s likely that most, if not all, will end up in overcrowded, filthy detention centers in Libya where beatings, forced labor, and sexual violence are rife. Human Rights Watch (HRW) colleagues and I have spoken with hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers over the years regarding abuses they risk from officials, smugglers, and members of militias and criminal gangs in Libya.

In September, the head of the U.N. mission in Libya called the plight of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in the North African country “horrific.” Martin Kobler said that the U.N. mission seeks “the end to arbitrary detention… the closure of a number of detention centres and increased protection of those detained… in these detention centres, women are particularly exposed to abuses including sexual violence.”

The general chaos and violence in Libya prompted the United Nations Refugee Agency in October 2015 to call on all countries to “allow civilians fleeing Libya (Libyan nationals, habitual residents of Libya and third country nationals) access to their territories.” That call is as relevant today as it was when it was made a year ago.

Second, what is the training really about? Improving the capacity of Libyan authorities to perform search and rescue operations is vital. At present, all of the EU-flagged vessels performing life-saving search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean are allowed to patrol only in international waters.

Libyan authorities have not agreed to let the EU mission operate in Libyan waters, where many migrant vessels get into distress with deadly consequences. Reports on Thursday of two shipwrecks with at around 240 dead or missing are a tragic reminder that building Libyan capacity to meet its obligation to carry out search-and-rescue operations in its own waters could save many lives.

But Italy and the EU may also see another benefit: preventing arrivals on EU shores by getting the Libyans to intercept the boats before they reach international waters. Once there they could come into any contact with the EU operation in the central Mediterranean known as EUNAVFOR MED or Operation Sophia, the European border agency Frontex, or vessels operated by nongovernmental groups.

EU-flagged vessels are bound by the principle of non-refoulement, which bars returning anyone to a place where they face threats to their lives and freedoms. If migrant boats intercepted in Libyan waters by Libyan vessels are taken back to Libyan shores, however, the EU non-refoulement obligations would not be triggered. Libya has not ratified the international refugee convention, does not have a functioning asylum system, and, as stated above, subjects migrants and asylum seekers to abuse.

Third, who will be trained and what accountability will there be if abuses occur? The EU is partnering with the beleaguered U.N.-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, one of three competing authorities in Libya. The coast guard in western Libya is by no means a unified and homogenous force, but rather a grouping of semi-autonomous forces. The judicial system cannot provide an effective legal remedy as it has collapsed in most parts of the country and is dysfunctional at best, where still operational.

Libyan forces have no doubt saved lives in their territorial waters. But there are troubling accounts of abusive and life-threatening behavior that the EU should not ignore. Ibrahim—a pseudonym— told me that what he believed was a Libyan coast guard Zodiac circled the rubber dinghy he was on with 132 others at high speed, making strong waves. “The planks at the bottom of our boat started to break, one by one. There was panic on board. People were moving from one side to the other. There was a girl in the middle, with her sister, and near me. Nigerian. She was trampled, she died,” he said. I heard other accounts of beatings and even shootings by the Libyan Coast Guard during interceptions. HRW was not able to verify these accounts.

The German nongovernmental organization Sea-Watch alleged that Libyan forces had violently interrupted a rescue operation one of its boats was conducting on October 21. Sea-Watch said that a man from a Libyan coast guard boat boarded an overcrowded rubber dinghy and beat people, causing panic and a rupture in the boat. Over 150 people ended up in the water; Sea-Watch rescued 120 people and recovered four corpses. The rest are unaccounted for and feared dead. Libyan naval forces in Tripoli deny that any coast guard vessel was involved and it is unclear whether anyone has opened an investigation into these serious allegations.

Efforts to deputize Libyan authorities to prevent boat migration to Europe have to be linked to human rights benchmarks. The training program should have a strong human-rights component, with an emphasis on the duty to rescue migrants aboard vessels in distress rather than overzealous interceptions of seaworthy vessels. Trained units should be monitored and held accountable for abuses and any improper behavior by the Libyan coast guard and navy need to be part of the EU’s support for rule of law initiatives in Libya.

The EU should also support concrete plans to ensure that conditions and treatment in Libyan detention centers meet basic standards. This should involve independent, impartial, and transparent monitoring, and readiness to suspend the training program if abuses continue. The EU should also renew efforts to obtain permission to operate in Libyan waters so EU-flagged vessels can assist in rescues.

The cost of failing to do so will be measured in human suffering and the EU’s global standing.

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