GENEVA (26 May 2021) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on the Libyan Government of National Unity and the European Union and its Member States to urgently reform their current search and rescue policies and practices in the central Mediterranean Sea that too often rob migrants of their lives, dignity and fundamental human rights.
“The real tragedy is that so much of the suffering and death along the central Mediterranean route is preventable,” Bachelet said Wednesday, as the UN Human Rights Office issued a report on search and rescue and the protection of migrants in the central Mediterranean.
“Every year, people drown because help comes too late, or never comes at all. Those who are rescued are sometimes forced to wait for days or weeks to be safely disembarked or, as has increasingly been the case, are returned to Libya which, as has been stressed on countless occasions, is not a safe harbour due to the cycle of violence,” the High Commissioner said.
According to the report, evidence suggests that the lack of human rights protection for migrants at sea “is not a tragic anomaly, but rather a consequence of concrete policy decisions and practices by the Libyan authorities, the European Union (EU) Member States and institutions, and other actors that have combined to create an environment where the dignity and human rights of migrants are at risk.”
The report, which covers the period from January 2019 to December 2020, notes with concern that the EU and its Member States have cut back significantly on their maritime search and rescue operations, while humanitarian NGOs have been obstructed from carrying out their life-saving rescue operations. In addition, private commercial vessels increasingly avoid going to the aid of migrants in distress because of delays and stand-offs over their eventual disembarkation in a port of safety.
The EU Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), the EU Naval Force for the Mediterranean (Operation IRINI) and EU Member States have encouraged the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) to take on more responsibility for search and rescue operations in international waters. However, this has happened without sufficient human rights due diligence and safeguards, leading to an increase in interceptions and returns to Libya, where migrants continue to suffer serious human rights violations and abuses. In 2020, at least 10,352 migrants were intercepted by the LCG at sea and returned to Libya, compared to at least 8,403 in 2019.
The European Commission and EU Member States should ensure that all agreements or measures of cooperation on migration governance with Libya are consistent with Member States’ obligations under international law, including international human rights law, the report urges. All EU coordination with the Libyan authorities over search and rescue should be conditional upon assurances that migrants rescued or intercepted at sea will not be disembarked in Libya and will be designated a port of safety.
Despite a significant drop in the overall number of migrants arriving in Europe via the central Mediterranean route in recent years, hundreds of people continue to die – at least 632 so far in 2021.
For those rescued, delays in being disembarked in a place of safety have caused further suffering, with migrants sometimes left for days or weeks on board vessels poorly suited to long-term accommodation. The report notes that such delays became more acute during 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some migrants forced to quarantine aboard vessels at sea. Once disembarked, migrants also faced a host of challenges, including inadequate reception conditions, and the risk of mandatory, prolonged or otherwise arbitrary detention.
“We can all agree that no one should feel compelled to risk their lives, or those of their families, on unseaworthy boats in search of safety and dignity,” Bachelet said. “But the answer cannot be simply preventing departures from Libya or making the journeys more desperate and dangerous.”
The High Commissioner, who has expressed her concern at what she termed “this lethal disregard for desperate people,” reiterated the need for more determined action to deploy sufficient search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. She also called for support for the work of humanitarian NGOs, and the adoption of a common and human rights-based arrangement for the timely disembarkation of all people rescued at sea.
“Until there are sufficient safe, accessible and regular migration channels, people will continue to try to cross the central Mediterranean, no matter what the dangers or consequences,” she added. “I urge EU Member States to show solidarity to ensure that frontline countries, such as Malta and Italy, are not left to shoulder a disproportionate responsibility.”