More than 5,300 people have died in ‘watery graveyard’ two years on from Libya deal

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Two years on from Italy’s EU-backed migration deal with Libya, more than 5,300 people have perished in the Mediterranean and thousands more still are suffering in Libyan detention camps, Oxfam said today.

In an open letter to EU governments, more than 50 organisations including Oxfam said EU governments have become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes in the Mediterranean. People are now in even more danger at sea and are being returned by the Libyan coastguard to face sexual abuse, slavery and other human rights abuses in Libya.

The Libya deal, signed on 2 February 2017, provides money and technical support from Italy and the EU to the Libyan coastguard, in return for the coastguard preventing people from leaving Libya for Europe.

The open letter says that some EU member states have deliberately forced the organisations conducting search and rescue operations to stop their life-saving work. It also accuses governments of making unfounded allegations against ships operating in the Mediterranean and preventing them from leaving their ports. This time last year there were five organisations conducting search and rescue operations – now there is only one.

Since the Libya deal was struck, more than 5,300 people have drowned in the Mediterranean including over 4,000 people on the central route closest to Libya, making it the deadliest sea in the world.

Moussa*, a 17-year-old boy from Mali, told Oxfam staff that he was intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and brought to a detention centre in Tripoli: “There were many people in the prison. They asked me for more money, but I didn’t have any left. They beat me on the soles of my feet, my calves and my knees, but I kept saying that I couldn’t contact anyone because I had no family left in Mali … I saw a young Gambian boy beaten to death before my eyes because he dared to rebel and answer back to them.”

Oxfam’s EU migration policy advisor, Raphael Shilhav, said: “EU countries are making the Mediterranean a watery graveyard as a matter of deliberate policy. They must allow search and rescue ships to dock in their ports, disembark rescued people, and return to sea to save people’s lives, in line with international law. All attempts to prevent their work will inevitably lead to more deaths and run counter to Europe’s humanitarian values.”

Numerous accounts collected by Oxfam and its partners in recent years show that people in Libya are often crammed into detention centres in abandoned buildings or pitch black tunnels, without enough food. Many are mistreated before being sold to armed groups or as slaves.

Yonas*, a 28-year-old man from Eritrea, said he was detained by various gangs in Libya: “Altogether, I lived a year and a half in two prisons, where we were all living in terrible conditions, with many people getting sick and not receiving care. Many died and were buried like animals. The women were raped in front of us. We were beaten every day by prison guards selected from the group of migrants … They beat us and made us call our family to ask them to send us money.”

Ibrahim*, a 26-year-old man from Guinea, said he was kidnapped by a gang in Tripoli. He described how the gang members would deceive UN personnel who came to the detention centre where he was held: “On the days when UN staff came they treated us well, cleaned everything, cooked good food, brought us clothes, brought us to a doctor for check-ups. As soon as the UN staff had left, things changed immediately. They took everything they had given us: food, clothes, soap.”

In 2018, the Libyan coastguard intercepted more than 15,000 people and returned them to Libya. Currently, 6,400 people are known to be held in official detention sites in Libya, with many more in other centres, some of which are run by armed groups. According to the UN, even “official” centres can be run by people smugglers and traffickers, despite the EU’s commitment to combat human trafficking.

Oxfam and the other signatories to the open letter are calling on EU governments to stop sending people rescued at sea back to Libya. The organisations say that EU member states need to be prepared to suspend cooperation with the Libyan coastguard if issues like arbitrary detention are not dealt with. EU governments should also support search and rescue operations and ensure that people rescued at sea can arrive safely and without delay to Europe.

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For more information or to arrange an interview with a spokesperson in Brussels, the UK or Italy, please contact Kai Tabacek on ktabacek1@oxfam.org.uk / 07584 265 077

Notes to editors:

  • *Names have been changed to protect their identities. The full testimonies are available on request.
  • The Italy-Libya memorandum of understanding was signed on 2 February 2017 and was modelled on the EU-Turkey deal. The memorandum was a trade-off providing money and technical support to the Libyan coastguard and other security services in return for stopping migrants on their way to Europe.
  • Based on data from the Missing Migrants Project  4,085 people died or went missing in the Central Mediterranean route during the period from 2 February 2017 until the end of January 2019. 5,389 people died or went missing in the entire Mediterranean (Central, Western and Eastern routes) during the same period.
  • Along with 52 other organisations, Oxfam signed an open letter to EU governments, calling on them to support search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements for migrants arriving on European shores and end returns to Libya.
  • According to the UN Support Mission in Libya, approximately 6,400 individuals were being held in 26 official prisons operated by the Ministry of Justice during the reporting period (Aug 2018–Jan 2019). Thousands more were being held in facilities nominally under the control of the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defence, as well as facilities directly run by armed groups. The report also states that arbitrary detention and torture continue to be widespread.
  • The UNHCR monthly update on Libya says that the Libyan coastguard intercepted a total of 15,235 people along the Libyan coast in 2018.
  • A UN report from December 2018 states that the UN support mission to Libya “continues to receive credible information on the complicity of some State actors, including local officials, members of armed groups formally integrated into State institutions, and representatives of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence, in the smuggling or trafficking of migrants and refugees. These State actors enrich themselves through exploitation of and extortion from vulnerable migrants and refugees.”
  • Oxfam’s report from August 2017, based on hundreds of testimonies from people who had escaped Libya, exposed how rape, torture and slave labour are among the horrendous daily realities for people stuck in Libya having tried to escape war, persecution and poverty in other countries.
  • Italy called for the seizure of the MSF rescue ship Aquarius after alleging that it had disposed of potentially hazardous waste in its ports. MSF strongly condemned this “disproportionate and unfounded measure”, stating that “the in-port operations, including waste management, of MSF’s search and rescue vessels have always followed standard procedures” which the authorities had never taken issue with before.