Five years have passed since the 2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck, leaving 368 migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa. Abstractly, the number of migrants who have landed in Italy in 2018 has gone down by 77.7% compared to the same period last year, according to data released by the new Italian Minister of Interior, Marco Minniti.

But in the past four months of Minniti’s new ‘deterrence’ policies, the highest risk of death for migrants departing from Libya was also recorded. The percentage of documented migrants that have died or gone missing climbed to 21.8% in September 2018, from only 1.6% last year. Five years on, and deaths in the Mediterranean are at an all-time high.

The focus of Italian immigration policies has been on border protection rather than humanitarian concerns. The two-pronged policy introduced my Minniti aims, on the one hand, to force humanitarian aid organizations out of the Mediterranean, and on the other, to support the Libyan Coast Guard in carrying out the Search and Rescue (SAR) operations.

Libya is at the centre of policies aimed at containing migration flows to the European Union (EU). The EU and individual states have been externalizing their border control operations through partnership with the Libyan Coast Guard, an entity in itself controversial. That is to ensure that migrants are intercepted at sea and pulled back to Libya before reaching European territorial waters. As stated in an often cited report by Amnesty International entitled “Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion”, European governments are “actively supporting a sophisticated system of abuse against migrants in coordination with the Libyan coast guard”.

This forms part of a practice of what is arguably refoulement by proxy.

Non-refoulement is a principle of customary international law that is not subject to exceptions. This fundamental principle prohibits states from turning back (‘refouling’) refugees or asylum seekers to a territory where they may face persecution, once they have entered the territory of the receiving state. European policies operate by negating migrants’ access to European territory and asylum procedures, thus preventing them from invoking this principle. But non-refoulement arguably applies extraterritorially in many cases and border guard authorities have an obligation to act under maritime and refugee laws and human rights to protect migrants at sea. Outsourcing these violations to a third party, and masking interception operations as rescues is a clear violation of their international obligations.

This is despite evidence of violations by the Libyan coast guard forces and knowledge that those intercepted are placed in detention centres. The often mentioned Libyan Coast Guard is a unit comprised of militias, in partnership with the U.N. backed Libyan government headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, who operate under the guise of the official coast guard units. Several reports point to widespread collusion between coast guard units and the traffickers handling the migrant flow.

These piecemeal solutions have created a vicious cycle by which funds and arms are falling into the hands of the wrong actors. As Amnesty International reported, Italy and the EU have been “complicit” with Libya by continuing to support and empower the Libyan Coast Guard.

Furthermore, the hostile treatment of NGOs in the Mediterranean infringes on migrants’ right to access to impartial humanitarian aid. Vital rescue assets are detained in various ports, due to political interventions by EU member states. And aid organizations have limited access in the region.

The Libyan Coast Guard unilaterally declared the Libyan SAR zone and threatened any rescue NGOs that dared to enter it. They have ‘rescued’ over 13,000 people this year, a 194-percent increase compared to 2017 according to IOM’s Displacement Tracking Index. Most are sent back to detention centres, where migrants face mass violations of human rights, and which are often run by militias.

The coast guard have shown a consistent lack of sufficient care for the sanctity of life while conducting SAR operations. In a collision with Sea Watch in November 2017, at least 20 people died and at least 47 were pulled back to Libya. More recently, in July of 2018, Proactiva Open Arms accused a Libyan coastguard of leaving three people, including a woman and her child, to drown in the Mediterranean after intercepting a boat carrying some 160 migrants. Aboard the vessels, life jackets are optional, migrants are threatened with ropes and machine guns by coast guard officers and are often subjected to physical violence.

Policies of containment in unsafe transit countries like Libya endanger migrants’ lives. This, unfortunately, draws back on global securitized approaches to migration and border control. The question remains, to what end will governing migrant flows be prioritized at the cost of putting thousands of lives at risk?


Fatimah Elfeitori is a law graduate from the University of London and a first year M.A. candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs, specializing in Humanitarian Assistance and Project Management. The majority of her work and publications have focused on refugee and migrant issues in North Africa and South East Asia. Other topics of interest include international humanitarian law and transitional justice.

Featured Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons 

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