(Brussels) – The European Union and its member states should ensure that any migration cooperation with Libya and other North African countries puts the lives, rights, and dignity of migrants front and center, Human Rights Watch said today.

EU leaders will meet in Malta on February 3, 2017, in talks about further efforts to stop boat migration in the central Mediterranean. They will discuss increased funding and training for the United Nations-backed Libyan Government of National Accord – one of three competing authorities in the country – to enhance border surveillance and control both on the coast and on Libya’s southern borders. Migration cooperation measures with Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, focusing on readmission, border control, and prevention of new migration routes, will also be on the table in Malta.

“Whether cast in cold political terms or as a compassionate effort to save lives, EU efforts to stop the boats from Libya boil down to outsourcing responsibility to one party in a country riven by conflict and where migrants face horrific abuse,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “What the EU wants to call a ‘line of protection’ could in reality be an ever-deeper line of cruelty in the sand and at sea.”

Migrants, detained after trying to reach Europe, sit on the ground of a detention camp in Gheryan, Western Libya, on December 1, 2016.

The Malta meeting comes at a politically sensitive juncture, and as various EU politicians promote alarming policy measures to minimize boat migration from North Africa, Human Rights Watch said. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta proposed a deal with Libya similar to the one with Turkey, which allows the EU to send asylum seekers back. Austria actively promotes the Australian model of offshore processing centers, despite the evidence of abuse there. Finally, there appears to be consensus to rely increasingly on “safe third country concepts” to sanction the return of non-nationals to countries of first arrival outside the EU.

The possibility that the EU will seriously consider returning migrants to Libya is of greatest concern, Human Rights Watch said. In an internal document seen by Human Rights Watch, Malta, currently holding the rotating EU presidency, proposed that the EU should seek to reinterpret the nonrefoulement obligation in “crisis situations.” The newspaper Malta Today suggested that the summit’s outcome document would endorse the idea that the EU should look “at the possibility of sending migrants back to Libya, and the potential barriers to this, while respecting international law.”

“The suggestion that the EU might think about how to get around international law and send people back to face abuse in Libya shows how low political dialogue has sunk,” Sunderland said. “To send people back would violate the law, not to mention basic decency, and betray the values on which the EU and its member states were built.”

The evidence of brutality against migrants in Libya is overwhelming, Human Rights Watch said. A damning December 2016 report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN mission in Libya documented widespread malnutrition, forced labor, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture, and other abuses in immigration detention centers in Libya. A German Foreign Ministry memo leaked to the press this week stated that migrants in Libya are executed, tortured, raped, bribed, and banished to the desert “on a daily basis.” Human Rights Watch has documented abuses against migrants in Libya for years, including by Libyan coast guard officers.

EU countries are prevented under EU and international law from sending anyone back to anywhere where there is a real risk of serious harm such as in Libya – the nonrefoulement obligation. In October 2015, the UN refugee agency UNHCR called on all countries to allow civilians fleeing Libya, including foreigners, access to their territories. That call is arguably more relevant than ever, Human Rights Watch said. The agency has also called on all states to suspend any forcible returns to Libya until the security and human rights situation improve considerably. Italian asylum claims adjudicators and courts have granted humanitarian leave to stay to non-Libyan migrants due to violence experienced in Libya. Libya is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic law or procedure for considering asylum claims.

Leaders in Malta are expected on February 3 to endorse greater cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to improve conditions for and treatment of migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, in Libya. Concrete improvements and increased protections for migrants are desperately needed, but just as vital are options for safe and legal travel out of Libya including via resettlement, Human Rights Watch said. The realities on the ground mitigate against progress in the short-term. The UNHCR Europe chief, Vincent Cochetel, has cautioned about the limits of what his agency and other humanitarian organizations can do in Libya.

Over 180,000 migrants were disembarked in Italy in 2016; roughly 15 percent were children, the vast majority of them traveling on their own. About 24,000 women were among arrivals in 2016, almost half of them from Nigeria. IOM estimates that 80 percent of Nigerian women in Italy are victims of trafficking. At least 4,579 people died in the central Mediterranean in 2016, and 227 have already perished or been reported missing in the first month of 2017.

Increasing the capacity of Libyan authorities and those in neighboring countries to save lives at sea and on land and supporting the establishment of genuine protection regimes in countries of first arrival are important long-term goals. They are no substitute, however, for access to protection in the EU for those who need it now.

The EU should ensure continued robust search-and-rescue missions in the central Mediterranean, including by nongovernmental organizations doing vital work; seek to obtain permission for EU-flagged vessels to assist in rescues in Libyan waters; and bring all those rescued to Europe for a fair determination of their protection needs.

EU leaders should support a mechanism to monitor – independently, impartially, and transparently – the situation in migrant detention centers in Libya, assess whether efforts to address migrants’ suffering deliver results, and be ready to suspend its training and cooperation in Libya if grave abuses continue.

Member states should share responsibility for asylum seekers more equitably and step up relocation of a larger pool of asylum seekers from Italy to elsewhere in the EU. And the EU should expand the safe and legal ways in which migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, can reach Europe. This includes dramatically increasing resettlement of recognized refugees, the use of humanitarian visas to allow asylum seekers move to the EU for the purpose of applying for protection, and facilitating family reunification.

“EU leaders may aspire to Libya being a stable, safe country governed by the rule of law and capable of controlling its borders in a way that respects people’s rights, but for now asylum is nonexistent and the situation for migrants there is an affront to basic humanity,” Sunderland said. “The EU cannot wash its hands of that reality with money and training programs.”