Open Letter to High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy of European Commission

Ms. Federica Mogherini,
High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy, Vice President of Commission,
European Commission,
Rue de la Loi,
Wetstraat 200,
Via Email

Mr. Antonio Tajani, European Parliament president
Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president
Mr. Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission
Mr. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner on migration
Mr. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Dear Ms. Mogherini,

8 March 2019

 Refugees Returned to Libya under February 2017 Agreement with EU

 You must certainly be aware of the huge humanitarian crisis for refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa, notably from Libya to Europe, and especially to Italy. According to the UNHCR, at least 4,000 refugees have drowned in this stretch of sea in the past two years. Recent measures adopted by the Government of Italy have made it impossible for rescue ships to come into Italian ports to refuel there, preventing them from landing desperate refugees in Italy. Where only a few years ago there were five independent rescue vessels saving lives at sea in this area, there are no longer any. The decisions and actions of the Italian government have most certainly contributed to the steep rise in deaths of refugees in this section of the Mediterranean Sea. This is a situation which no civilised government should regard as acceptable, and it is urgent that the European Union take action to remedy this tragic loss of lives.

But actions by the EU and Italy in the last two years appear to have exacerbated the situation for the refugees leaving North Africa on the perilous journey to Europe. You undoubtedly have detailed knowledge of the Agreement signed by Libya, Italy, and representatives of the EU in February 2017, under which, with large financial incentive from the EU, Libya agreed to accept back into its territory all refugees found in a vast area of the Mediterranean Sea in international waters significantly distant from its national waters. The stated aim of this policy of forced unlawful returns of refugees to Libya was to allegedly reduce the death toll at sea, but its only ascertained effect has been to stem the flow of refugees from Africa into Europe. The consequences of such police for refugees returned to Libya have been nothing short of horrific.

Forcibly returning refugees to Libya only means that these very vulnerable people are handed back into the hands of violent Libyan police and coastguard officers. Refugees are being unlawfully incarcerated in appalling detention centers indefinitely, without any recourse to justice or legal and humanitarian consideration of their cases. The behaviour of their captors, official or otherwise, has been no different from the actions of criminal gangs. It has been widely corroborated how refugees returned to Libya suffer widespread daily beatings, torture and rape in official Libyan detention centres and are often sold into slavery by the very same Libyan authorities the EU is funding. There are reports by UN Human Rights bodies and international human rights organisations exposing how Libyan traffickers, torturers, slave masters, police officers and coastguard officers work together in a complex network of cooperating gangs and militias. As a result of this agreement with Libya, those in mortal danger at sea are returned into a situation of unlawful detention, systematic torture, slavery and exploitation.  There are credible reports of many deaths in custody and of burials of bodies “like animals”.

15,000 refugees were returned to Libya in 2018. This is no small number of vulnerable people exposed to such horrific treatment. More importantly, these are violations of international human rights laws, including articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

On 26th February, an estimated 150 male detainees tried to protest against ongoing human rights abuses and intolerable inhuman conditions in the official detention centre of Triq Al Sikka and were severely tortured by officers of the Libyan Directorate for the Fight to Illegal Migration. Many were seriously injured and subsequently locked into underground cells, where they are still being held incommunicado. These detainees are all Eritrean and include also some unaccompanied minors, all injured by torture and beatings with metal bars suffered from the Libyan police. UNHCR and IOM are not being able to get access to these detainees and many are reported to have potentially fatal injuries.

The appalling scandal of the abuse of refugees in Libya has been the direct result of the EU agreement with Libya. It must not be allowed to continue.  What action is the EU taking to stop this utterly unacceptable treatment of helpless refugees?

Many of the refugees imprisoned and abused in Libya are from Eritrea. They have no safe place to which they may return, even if rescued. Since they have no access to media, and no way their voice can be heard, we at Human Rights Concern-Eritrea must speak out on their behalf.

May we urge you, and every responsible European official, especially all those who were involved in the signing of the agreement with Libya, to pursue and implement the following actions immediately: –

  1. End all payments to the Libyan coastguard and authorities dealing with migrants in Libya under the February 2017 agreement.
  2. Demand that the Libyan government immediately release all imprisoned refugees and close the detention centres in which they are held
  3. Demand that the Libyan authorities carry out independent investigations into the torture carried out by members of its Directorate for the Fight of Illegal Migration in all official detention centres, arresting and charging all those found guilty of human rights abuses.
  4. Demand that the Libyan authorities decriminalise immigration into Libyan territory and revoke legislation providing for detention of illegal migrants.
  5. Stop all co-operation and information-sharing with the Libyan coastguard.
  6. Send EU search and rescue vessels to the area next to Libyan territorial waters to ensure that no refugees at sea are returned to Libya until the Libyan government has released all detained refugees, repealed their laws criminalising illegal immigration into Libya and providing for systematic detention of all migrants.
  7. Promote Libyan efforts towards a genuine process of peace building, democratisation and construction of a functioning political system based on respect for human rights and the rule of law before considering any further funding to the Libyan authorities.

We await your urgent response to the crisis outlined above, and hope to hear about steps being taken to remedy these most serious violations of international human rights law in Libya, for which Europe is currently fully complicit and accountable.


Yours sincerely,

Elizabeth Chyrum
Human Rights Concern -Eritrea