A new report criticises how the Italy-Libya agreement, two years after its signing (and with the support of the EU) is continuing to cause death in the Mediterranean Sea and violations of human rights: 5,300 people in two years, and 143 deaths against 500 arrivals in 2019 alone. Thousands of people are detained in inhumane conditions in Libyan prisons; 15,000 migrants have been brought back to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard over the last year, thus increasing human trafficking.

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Landing at Pozzallo – June 2016 (Photo: Alessandro Rota)

Rome, 1 February 2019: Two years after being signed, the Italy-Libya agreement on migration, supported by the EU, continues to produce death in the Mediterranean and assist the detention of thousands of men, women and children in flight from war and hunger in the Libyan detention centres. Over the past two years, 5,300 people have drowned, of whom 4,000 in the central Mediterranean route.

The Italy-Libya agreement: check mate for human rights in 4 moves, the new report released today by Oxfam Italia and Borderline Sicilia, analyses the strategy enacted by the Italian government and the EU, one that – without heed for international law – has shown itself entirely inadequate in managing policies of regular entrance into our continent and mechanisms of automatic redistribution of migrants across member states.

“Beginning with the Libya-Italy agreement of two years ago, there have been four moves which, according to our analysis, have caused a real check mate of human rights, with disastrous effects for the death rate in the central Mediterranean route, with one victim for every 38 arrivals in 2017 and one every 14 in 2018.” said Paolo Pezzati, policy advisor for the migratory crisis for Oxfam Italia. “1,311 deaths and missing persons have been counted over the last year, while at the same time the living conditions for migrants in Libya have dramatically worsened. A change of direction is required, one that moves towards the creation of policies of assistance and cooperation that respect human rights, and the construction of a secure environment in Libya and Europe.”

“We believe that – two years’ on from the signing of the memorandum (which has never been ratified by the Italian parliament), in the light of the countless international reports that criticse the lack of respect for human rights and the marked instability in Libya – Italy and Europe continue to pursue migration policies that will go down in history as crimes against humanity.” Added Paola Ottaviano, lawyer for Borderline Sicilia.

Here are the four moves by which Italy, and thus Europe, have bulldozed international law, ignoring the human rights of migrants:

Move number 1: the Libyan Coast Guard, an illegitimate agent

If Libya is not a port of safety, as has been established at a European level many times, how can the Libyan Coast Guard be considered a legitimate agent for a search and rescue zone? It is estimated that in the current moment this force serves only to trap thousands of migrants, exposing them to systematic and daily violations, torture and abuse of every kind, held in detention centres comparable to concentration camps, official and otherwise. It is estimated that there around around 600,000 migrants blocked in the country.

“[…] The Bani Walid prison was a hangar while in Sherif we were closed in an underground tunnel where you live in constant darkness. A spent a year and a half in detention in both prisons, where everyone lives in terrible conditions, and many, many people are sick.” This is the account of A.A., Eritrean, 28 years old, kidnapped by one of the many Libyan gangs, as told to staff from Oxfam and Borderline. “Sick people receive no treatment. Many die and are buried like animals. Women were raped in front of us. We were beaten every day by the prison guards, who forced us to ask money from our families.”

This reel of horrors was only interrupted, it seems, when there were inspections from the United Nations in the detention centres. “Over the days when UN staff came to where we were detained we were treated better, allowed to wash ourselves, get dressed, eat and seen by a doctor” recalls R.M., from Guinea, 26 years old, kidnapped by one of the gangs on the streets of Tripoli. “As soon as the UN people left everything changed. They took everything they had given us back: food, clothes, soap.”

“In 2018, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted 15,000 people and brought them back to Libya, exposing them once again to inhumane conditions.” Added Pezzati. “There are currently 6,400 people trapped in official places of detention in Libya, but many are held in ‘unofficial prisons’, some of which are run directly by armed Libyan groups. Furthermore, according to the UN, even the official centres are sometimes managed by the same people who are involved in human trafficking – who the EU and Italy are combating. In the end, bringing migrants back to Libya simply aids human trafficking.”

Move number 2: From Triton to Themis, less arrivals in Italy but more risks at Sea

The main innovation introduced by request of the Italian government is the obligation for migrant landings (and those of shipwreck survivors) to take place in the port closest to the point where the rescue operation at sea has taken place, and not automatically in an Italian port as was the case with the Triton mission. Furthermore, the patrol area of the naval units has been moved to 24 nautical miles from the Italian coast, deducing the operational zone (for Triton it was 30 miles). A landing in an Italian port thus becomes automatic only for those within this new area. This is a condition that has put innocent men, women and children fleeing atrocities at further risk – independently of their own story, conditions of vulnerability or their country of origin. This is while the central Mediterranean route has become the most dangerous in the world, with 937 deaths and missing persons between June and December 2018 out of a total of 1,311 over the whole year.

Move number 3: a policy of “closed ports” and open danger.

The current government is taking up the set-up established by the previous one and pushing it to its extreme, initiating a direct fight with other member states as well as with the vessels rescuing shipwreck survivors. The case of the Lifeline vessel, the second time (after the Aquarius) that a ship was forced to change route to Valencia after a game of tug and war between various European governments, represents the precedent that brought the European Council, in June last year, to include in its concluding statements for member states that the landing of a vessel should follow a prior agreement about the distribution of migrants on board. This measure reflects an abandonment of the search for structural solutions, opening a period in which decisions are made case by case.

Aside from the desperate conditions to which migrants are subjected, such as in the well known cases of the Lifeline, the Diciotti and the Seawatch, this posturing between European states (begun by Italy) continues to put vulnerable people at risk – and will continue to do so – violating the European Convention for the Rights of Man, Article 2 (right to life) and Article 3 (prohibition on torture and inhumane or degrading detention). This does not seem to concern the Italian government however, which refuses to authorise landings by any of the ships involved in rescue operations at sea, despite the norms of Italian and international law.

Move number 4: the enemy at the gates, the NGOs

Between 2014 and 2017, the NGO vessels in the Mediterranean have saved the lives of 114,910 people, out of 611,414 rescued in total, equivalent to 18.8%. Despite this, the smear campaign and criminalisation begun in 2017 – which has failed to generate a single judicial sentence – has resulted in: a lack of rescue at sea; violations of human rights to the damage of migrants, perpetrated by the Libyan Coast Guard during the course of rescue operations; delays in the reporting of shipwrecks, many not reported for several days.

The Call to Italy and Europe

“Faced with this situation, we call for Italy to repeal its agreement with the Libyan authorities, in agreement with the EU and other European countries.” concludes Pezzati. “For this reason, along with 50 organisations, we have today sent an open letter to the governments of member states with the request to stop migrants rescued at sea from being taken back to the Libyan inferno. At the same time, we call on Italy to end the policy of closed ports and, instead, to promote a new rescue mission in the Mediterranean at a European level. We call on the EU to do everything diplomatically possible until the other member states approve the reform of the Dublin Treaty in the European Council, as voted through by the European Parliament, which includes an automatic redistribution of asylum seekers.”

You can support the campaign for a Welcoming Europe here.

Oxfam Italia press office:

Mariateresa Alvino – 348.9803541 – mariateresa.alvino@oxfam.it
David Mattesini – 349.4417723 – david.mattesini@oxfam.it
Elena Pagliai – 333.5952152 – elena.pagliai@oxfam.it



Executive summary (link)
Report integrale (link)


Project “OpenEurope” – Oxfam Italia, Diaconia Valdese, Borderline Sicilia Onlus

Translation by Richard Braude