Stop returning rescued people to Libya and start supporting search-and-rescue operations, a group of 65 organisations, including eight Maltese ones, are urging European leaders.

Bodies of migrants lie on a boat after being recovered by a Santa Lucia merchant ship 20 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, on August 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Angelos TzortzinisBodies of migrants lie on a boat after being recovered by a Santa Lucia merchant ship 20 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, on August 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Angelos Tzortzinis

In a letter signed by Oxfam and Caritas Europa, among others, the organisations express grave concern over the death of 2,500 people in the Mediterranean since January 2018. 

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They claim that EU governments have become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes.

Sent ahead of the informal Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting and addressed to home affairs ministers and the European Council and Commission presidents among others, the signatories said that some member states were making it more difficult for civil society organisations to rescue people.

This included making unfounded allegations against them and preventing search-and-rescue boats from leaving their ports. Five organisations were conducting such operations this time last year but only one was able to do so now, they added.

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The Libyan coast guard intercepted 15,000 people and took them back to the North African country last year. Those forcibly returned to Libya are likely to be placed in detention, are abused, tortured or sold into slavery, according to the organisations.

The letter, signed by Malta NGOs African Media Association, Blue Door English, Kopin, Malta Microfinance, SKOP, Aditus Foundation, Integra Foundation and Moviment Graffitti, calls on leaders to reach an agreement on timely disembarkation that would save lives and respect people’s fundamental rights, including that of seeking asylum.

“Given the urgent need for measures on responsibility-sharing and the obstacles to an EU-wide solution, arrangements should be agreed upon immediately and participating states should be identified from the outset, not on a ship-by-ship basis,” the organisations say. Countries should also allow all vessels conducting search-and-rescue activities to dock in their ports, disembark people who have been rescued and return to sea in a timely manner. 

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European governments should establish clear benchmarks, including an end to arbitrary detention, and be prepared to suspend cooperation and assistance to the Libyan coast guard if not met, they argue.

What migrants told Oxfam

Moussa, 17, from Mali, was intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and taken to a Tripoli detention centre: “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 I couldn’t contact anyone because I had no family left in Mali… I saw a young Gambian boy beaten to death because he dared to answer back.”

Yonas, 28, from Eritrea, was detained by various gangs in Libya: “I lived for a year and a half in two prisons… in terrible conditions, with many people getting sick and not receiving care. Many died and were buried like animals. Women were raped in front of us. We were beaten every day by prison guards selected from among migrants… They beat us and made us call our family to ask them to send money.”

Ibrahim, 26, from Guinea, was kidnapped by a Tripoli street gang: “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 left, things changed immediately. They took everything they had given us: food, clothes, soap.”