An Irish-born doctor who spent three months working on board the Medecins Sans Frontieres search and rescue vessel MV Aquarius in the Mediterranean has called on the EU to open safe and legal routes for refugees and migrants rather than ignoring abuse perpetuated by Libyan forces. Dr Conor Kenny recorded a video diary and extracts were published by the Irish Times. He explained that EU collaboration with Libyan authorities would only fuel the smuggling industry.
“I haven’t been to Libya but these people’s stories are corroborated in rescue upon rescue. It’s clear these abuses are happening. Many are beaten in detention centres and some are shot. They say they would rather die at sea than go back to Libya.
“When I see dead bodies floating on a Wednesday afternoon in the calm Mediterranean sea, I just think we need a proper approach to save these lives. The work of NGOs in the Mediterranean is important but we are not the solution to this problem.”
He said that the vast majority of injuries suffered by migrants he has treated on board the rescue ship were the result of abuse and torture in Libyan detention centres.
This week the European Commission unveiled a €80m (£71m) action plan: half the funds would be invested in improving the capacity of the Libyan coastguard to stop traffickers launching migrants into the Mediterranean in order to be rescued by the Italian coastguard. The remainder would be spent to support migrants who make it to Italy.
Amnesty International’s Europe director John Dalhuisen said that the EU was “shamelessly prioritising reckless deals with Libya in a desperate bid to prevent refugees and migrants from reaching Italy” rather than “acting to save lives and offer protection”.
“European states have progressively turned their backs on a search and rescue strategy that was reducing mortality at sea in favour of one that has seen thousands drown and left desperate men, women and children trapped in Libya, exposed to horrific abuses.”
In 2015, a short-lived EU initiative to strengthen search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean dramatically decreased deaths at sea before attention shifted to disrupt smugglers and prevent departures from Libya. The use of increasingly unseaworthy boats have made the crossing even more perilous, and migrants rely on being picked up by charity or coastguard vessels as their own boats are not capable of sailing all the way to Lampedusa or the Italian mainland.
Interceptions by the Libyan coastguard often put refugees and migrants at risk. Their operational techniques do not meet basic safety standards and can lead to panic and catastrophic capsizing. There are also serious allegations that members of the coastguard collude with smugglers and evidence that they abuse migrants. Members of the Libyan coastguard have shot guns towards boats and a UN report last month reported that they were ‘directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms’.
Amnesty’s John Dalhuisen said that “ultimately the only sustainable and humane way to reduce the numbers risking such horrific journeys is to open more safe and legal routes for migrants and refugees to reach Europe”.
Back in June the European Commission launched legal proceedings against three EU member states who have refused to take in refugees. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are accused of not fulfilling their obligations to relocate migrants from Italy and Greece.
“I regret to see that, despite our repeated calls to pledge to relocate, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have not yet taken the necessary action.”
The Polish and Hungarian governments refused to take anyone in, while the Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people but has since said it would not welcome more.
Meanwhile, last week the European Court of Human Rights granted an interim measure (under Rule 39 of the Rules of the Court) and requested that the Greek authorities suspend the return of an asylum seeker to Turkey until the Administrative Court of Mytilene – the capital of the island of Lesbos – issues a decision.
“The applicant, a national of Pakistan and member of the Ahmadi minority, has had his asylum application rejected as unfounded at both first and second instance [and] an application for interim measures has been filed before the Administrative Court of Mytilene against his readmission to Turkey, although such measures have no suspensive effect under national law.”
The EU/Turkey deal was adopted in March 2016, and since then more than 1,200 people – mostly Pakistan nationals – have been returned from Greece to Turkey. This is not the first time that a court has halted the forcible return of a refugee from Greece.
This case may have a wider impact on the continued operation of the EU/Turkey deal.