Skip to main content
Photo released by the Libyan Coast Guard showing people disembarking in Libya after being intercepted offshore, June 24, 2018.  © 2018 Libyan Coast Guard via AP

(Milan) – The Italian government should suspend all support to the Libyan Coast Guard until Libya commits to a clear plan to fully respect migrants’ safety and rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The plan should include closing abusive migrant detention centers and, in particular, a guarantee to protect migrants against arbitrary detention and inhuman and degrading treatment.

“Italy can’t paper over its complicity in the suffering of migrants and refugees who fall into the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Humanitarian rhetoric doesn’t justify continued support to the Coast Guard when Italy knows people apprehended at sea will be returned to arbitrary detention and abuse.”

On February 9, 2020, the Italian Foreign Ministry announced that it had sent Tripoli its proposal for changes to the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding that provides the framework for cooperation on border control between the two countries. The statement says only that the changes are designed to increase protection for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Libya, and to require consolidating the activities of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, told parliament on January 30 that Italy would advocate closing detention centers and opening facilities under UN auspices, as well as supporting greater voluntary returns from Libya to countries of origin.

Material and technical support from Italy has enabled the Libyan Coast Guard, under the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), to intercept thousands of people at sea. The Libyan Coast Guard then returns people to arbitrary, indefinite detention in facilities where they face a high risk of exploitation and violence, including rape. The Memorandum of Understanding automatically renewed for another three years on February 2. UNHCR figures show that almost 40,000 people have been intercepted and taken back to Libya since it was signed 3 years go.

On January 30, UNHCR announced that it was forced to close its Gathering and Departure Facility in Tripoli, citing safety concerns amid ongoing hostilities in the capital. The center was designed to accommodate people slated for evacuation and resettlement in Europe and elsewhere but it was housing hundreds more who had escaped or were released from official detention centers since the conflict erupted in April 2019. UNHCR estimated in late December that some 4,000 people were locked up in official detention centers, to which humanitarian organizations and UN agencies have only sporadic access.

In January 2019, Human Rights Watch published evidence that support from Italy and other European Union member states for humanitarian assistance to detained migrants and asylum seekers, and for evacuation and repatriation programs, had done little to address the systematic problems with detention and mistreatment of migrants in Libya.

In a mid-January report on the activities of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the UN Secretary-General reiterated that Libya is not a safe port and urged all member countries to “revisit policies that support the return of refugees and migrants.” The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights called on Italy to “urgently suspend” cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard “until clear guarantees of human rights compliance are in place.”

Cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard should only occur as necessary to comply with the obligation under international law of the sea to coordinate response to situations of distress at sea, Human Rights Watch said. Every effort should be made in these cases to ensure disembarkation outside of Libya.

“Instead of tweaking the Memorandum of Understanding,” Sunderland said, “the Italian authorities should insist on the closure of detention centers, direct its resources to supporting safe alternatives to detention, increase evacuations from Libya, including directly to Italy, and resume a leadership role in saving lives at sea.”


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

Region / Country