This week, the European Union handed over in Italy a search and rescue vessel to Libyan authorities intended for abusive Libyan Coast Guard forces and promised four more, without any apparent attempt to vet the human rights practices of the coast guard, thus making the EU more complicit in human rights abuses in the Mediterranean.
While the single boat handed over by Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement is a pittance within an 800 million Euro project to “stop the illegal migration to Europe” from North Africa, it will tie the EU more directly to abuses that inevitably occur when the Libyan Coast Guards intercepts people at sea and brings them back to Libya.
For years the EU has abdicated its primary responsibility of search and rescue in the Mediterranean, where thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have died while attempting to reach Europe from North Africa, particularly Libya. Instead, the EU and member countries have chosen to furnish money, vessels, training, and aerial surveillance to abusive Libyan armed groups so they can intercept and forcibly return people to Libya. There, these migrants face systematic and widespread abuses including torture, arbitrary detention, forced labor, and sexual assault.
Dodging this reality, Várhelyi insists the aid will reduce deaths and trafficking in the Mediterranean and make Europe safer. “Libya can continue to count on Europe’s support,” he stated, adding that the EU can “expect [Libya’s] continued commitment to deliver tangible results on the ground.” The commissioner said nothing about the need to vet the human rights practices of the groups receiving EU support.
More than 24,684 people intercepted in the Mediterranean were forced back to Libya in 2022, and a staggering 25,313 at least have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.
To change this reality, the EU should stop supporting abusive militias and instead establish safe and legal pathways for migration. The EU and its member states should suspend cooperation with Libyan authorities until they ensure they are complying with the obligation not to return people to places where they face abuse, inhumane detention conditions, and lack of access to international protection. It is paramount the EU, with its significant means and technical capacities to take up its search and rescue responsibilities in the Mediterranean, focuses on saving lives and ensures people are disembarked in a safe port and never returned to the abuse they faced in Libya