Deja vu as EU continues to return refugees to indefinite detention and torture

Europe claims to care about human rights despite abuses in Libya continuing

This week, there was a sense of deja vu in the European Parliament. It came on Thursday, during a broadcast of a hearing in the Subcommittee on Human Rights, where diplomats, politicians, a journalist and United Nations human rights officials spoke about the situation for refugees and migrants in Libya.

The discussion was almost exactly the same as one that happened more than three years ago, at the end of 2018. At that time, too, EU officials reiterated that they cared about human rights. Then, too, they were talking about institution building and the possibility of elections uniting Libya and making it easier for the European Union to work with any new government to improve the situation there (a general election scheduled for 2018 was indefinitely postponed because of conflict; last December, they were once again indefinitely postponed, this time because of disagreements around who could contest and how it would be run).

Libya has been in turmoil since the 2011 revolution, when long-standing dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted and killed. The country is currently effectively split between two governments but militias hold a lot of sway.

In Libya, refugees stuck in a merciless cycle between traffickers, detention centres and forcible returns have tried to take a stand, with brutal results

Yet, the EU continues to pump money into stopping refugees from leaving there: equipping and training the Libyan coastguard, as well as using aerial assets to spot refugee boats so they can direct the Libyans to them. Since 2017, almost 90,000 men, women and children have been intercepted on the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach safety in Europe, and forced back to indefinite detention in Libya, where they are victims of torture, abuse, extortion, food deprivation and sexual violence.


The UN says more than 12,000 refugees and migrants are currently locked in centres that Pope Francis has decried as “concentration camps”. Legal evacuations, which were supposed to take refugees to safe countries, were initially slow because of a lack of other states offering spaces; they then went on hold completely due to the pandemic.

The only Irish contribution in Thursday’s hearing came from Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune, who seemingly missed the point when she called what she heard “interesting” and said: “I think what we’ve heard is the approach from the EU is a very human rights point of view and if we focus on that maybe, and trying to support structural reform, institutional reform, [that is a] path forward.”

In 2019, all of Fine Gael’s MEPs – Mairead McGuinness, Maria Walsh, Frances Fitzgerald and Sean Kelly – voted against a resolution that would have called on the EU to assess allegations of serious fundamental rights violations by the Libyan coastguard and to suspend support if there were no clear guarantees that human rights were being complied with. The resolution only failed to pass by two votes.

Over the past few years, there have been multiple submissions to the International Criminal Court calling for European and Libyan officials, along with others culpable for abuses in Libya, to be investigated for crimes against humanity. In October, an independent fact-finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council produced a report saying there is evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed against forcibly returned refugees and migrants.

“Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are subjected to a litany of abuses at sea, in detention centres and at the hands of traffickers,” said human rights expert Chaloka Beyani, delivering the report in October. “Our investigations indicate that violations against migrants are committed on a widespread scale by state and non-state actors, with a high level of organisation and with the encouragement of the state – all of which is suggestive of crimes against humanity.”

This week, the Associated Press made public a classified EU military document about the Libyan coastguard’s activities between August and November last year, during which time nearly 6,000 people were intercepted. The Libyan coastguard was found to be “constantly active”, and the document indicated that EU support will continue well into the future. It spoke about plans to continue providing them with vessels into 2023, as well as “capacity building and training”. Despite this, it also spoke about the Libyan coastguard’s “excessive use of physical force . . . against migrants” and the coastguard using tactics “not in compliance with the training provided”.

In Libya, refugees stuck in a merciless cycle between traffickers, detention centres and forcible returns have tried to take a stand, with brutal results. A historic protest began last October after roughly 5,000 migrants and refugees were rounded up in Tripoli and locked up in detention centres, while at least seven were killed. Those who escaped made their way to an office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but found the doors closed to them (staff cited “safety” concerns and the office was later shut down completely). Instead, the desperate refugees spent three months camped outside, calling for evacuation to safe countries.

This month, the protest came to a violent end when about 600 people were rounded up and incarcerated again, and at least one shot.

Yet the interceptions continue. By January 22nd, 604 new people had been intercepted at sea this year. “There are more visitors to a certain theme park in Romania on a certain day than there are to the EU in an entire year of arrivals from from Libya,” said Ben Lewis, a human rights officer from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Thursday’s hearing. So why are the abuses continuing?