Europe has made a dangerous turn on the Mediterranean Sea as it looks to Libya for help in slowing the number of migrants attempting to reach the continent in flimsy boats, Amnesty International said in a report released Thursday. The organization called the European Union's strategy of training the Libyan coast guard to rescue migrants "reckless."
By turning to Libya, a country in chaos that is the jumping-off point for the hazardous journey, the EU has created "A Perfect Storm" — the title of Amnesty's report — that could hammer often-desperate migrants with a double vengeance. They face the risk of dying at sea or grave human rights abuses once they are returned to Libya and trapped there, the human rights group said.
More than 2,000 migrants to Europe have died at sea so far this year, while over 73,380 have reached Italy, the report said, citing figures from Italy's Interior Ministry. By year's end, the number of arrivals is expected to match or exceed the 181,400 who made it in 2016, which was more than in the two previous years, the report said.
Looking for help
The European Union has been casting about for ways to deal with the crisis, notably looking to Libya, which has two rival governments, for help in preventing departures. The EU is focusing in particular on equipping and training the Libyan coast guard and navy to conduct sea rescues and to lead the fight against smuggling and trafficking networks.
Amnesty said it was "deeply problematic" to unconditionally fund and train Libya, where human rights are lacking and the coast guard has been known for violence and even smuggling.
The group cited an August incident off Libya's coast in which attackers shot at a Doctors Without Borders rescue boat. A U.N panel of experts on Libya later confirmed that two officers from a coast guard faction were involved.
In May, the Libyan coast guard intervened in a search-and-rescue operation another nongovernmental organization was performing. The coast guard officers threatened migrants with weapons, took command of their wooden boat and took it back to Libya, Amnesty reported.
"The current situation with the Libyan coast guard is absolutely outrageous," Iverna McGowan, who leads Amnesty International's European Institutions Office, said in an interview in Brussels. "It is unconscionable that the EU ... would allow certain rescue operations that we know are inadequate and trust that with people's lives."
The worst may go unseen, McGowan said. "People who are disembarked in Libya are going back to unlawful detention centers where they are facing torture, rape and other unthinkable abuses," she said.
The report argues that NGOs need to continue participating in migrant rescues even though Amnesty says responsibility for the task rests with governments. It makes no mention of the recent threat by an overwhelmed Italy to prohibit some NGOs from bringing migrants to ports in southern Italy.
Amnesty said a "multicountry humanitarian operation" under the control of Italy is urgently needed and that use of Libyan resources should be conditional on certain limitations, including no rescue operations outside territorial waters and the transfer of all rescued migrants to EU or other appropriate vessels.
Amnesty is not alone in its concern over relying on Libya to ease the European migrant crisis.
The search-and-rescue director for Save the Children, Rob MacGillivray, said in a statement that rescued migrants have recounted horrors from Libya, including claims of sexual assaults, sales to others for work, and whippings and electrical shocks in detention centers.
"Simply pushing desperate people back to Libya, which many describe as hell, is not a solution," he said.
Try harder, nations told
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitri Avramopoulos conceded at a recent news conference in Paris that the EU is drawing on a country in "very precarious conditions."
The European Union executive on Wednesday beseeched member states to step up their efforts and show goodwill in helping Italy and Greece cope with the surge in migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said, to the applause of legislators at the European Parliament, that "it would already make a world of difference in Europe if every single member state would live up to their commitments to show solidarity."
The EU made commitments to ease the migrant pressure on Italy and Greece by having other member states take in some of the refugees who have made the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, but several countries in eastern and central Europe have shown little or no appetite for doing so.