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Italy and the EU “Complicit” in Crimes Against Non-Nationals in Libya

B. Trew, “‘Left to Rot’: Inside Libya’s Squalid Detention Centres Where Migrants and Refugees Suffer a ‘Slow Death,’”The Independent, 4 September 2020,
B. Trew, “‘Left to Rot’: Inside Libya’s Squalid Detention Centres Where Migrants and Refugees Suffer a ‘Slow Death,’”The Independent, 4 September 2020,

The brutal treatment of refugees and migrants in Libya has been widely condemned and reported. Intercepted by the country’s coastguard and returned to Libyan “disembarkation zones,” non-nationals are placed in immigration detention facilities where conditions are inhuman. They face indefinite detention with frequent water and food shortages; overcrowding; physical mistreatment and torture; forced labour and slavery; and sexual and gender-based violence. According to a preliminary assessment by the office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, this treatment “may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

Despite this, Italy and the EU continue to provide financial and technical support to prop up Libya in its efforts to block the movement of migrants and refugees towards Europe. During a recent trip to Tripoli, Italy’s Prime Minister Meloni announced that her country would provide five “fully equipped” boats to Libya’s Coastguard to intercept non-nationals. Italy also renewed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya on 2 February, agreeing to support Libya’s so-called migration management for a further three years.

Denouncing the continuation of European assistance, Human Rights Watch said: “Assisting Libya’s coast guard, knowing that it will facilitate the return of thousands of people to serious human rights violations, makes Italy and the European Union complicit in such crimes.”

According to the latest data provided by the IOM’s Data Tracking Matrix, as of the end of January, at least 2,857 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers were being detained in eight detention centres in Libya. However, this figure is likely far lower than reality because many facilities remain under the control of militias and as such are inaccessible for independent observers. Previously, estimates suggested that 10,000 to 20,000 may be being detained on a given day.

Since 2017, UNHCR’s “Emergency Transit Mechanism” has sought to “evacuate” vulnerable non-nationals from detention centres in Libya to third countries, such as Niger and Rwanda, where they are to wait for resettlement. (On 12 February, Rwanda renewed its partnership with UNHCR to receive these “evacuees.” Asylum seekers are placed in the Emergency Transit Mechanism Centre in Bugesera, eastern Rwanda, while they await resettlement.)

Human Rights Watch characterises these evacuations as “little more than a fig leaf” because they are patently inadequate for addressing the full scope of the challenges on the ground in Libya. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, non-nationals listed for evacuation can wait months or years in Libya before their departure–despite transit facilities in Niger and Rwanda often only being half full. Those evacuated face similarly lengthy waits to be resettled–and even before knowing if and where they will be resettled.

Crimes Against Humanity European Union MENA Torture