The Malta Independent 23 September 2019, Monday

Editorial - Migrants in Libyan limbo: Europe’s credibility on the line

Thursday, 2 February 2017, 09:32 Last update: about 4 years ago

Malta currently has several migration-related issues on its plate.  These include the call it is facing from a united independent media to refrain from deporting holders of temporary humanitarian protection status, the issue of statelessness, which the government yesterday evening pledged to address in the near future, and the enormous issue with which it is tasked as the current holder of the EU’s Presidency of migration on a pan-European scale.

And as the European Union’s leaders convene tomorrow for their first summit under Malta’s EU Presidency, Malta and the rest of the EU are expected to deal with the dire situation being faced by the sub-Saharan migrants stuck in limbo in Libya.

The European Union’s leaders will face a litmus test tomorrow, they will be tasked with addressing this humanitarian crisis just south of its shores, and they will face a choice of whether to turn a blind eye and retreat into a state of Trump-like protectionism, or to show its true humanitarian mettle.

The human rights situation in Libya is truly catastrophic, with migrants heading for Europe bearing the brunt of the abuse, the German government noted this week in a memo leaked to the media. And although the situation of migrants stuck in transit in Libyan is not exactly fresh news, it is welcome news that the government of a major EU state such as Germany is cognisant of the situation.

Media reports this week quoted an internal German foreign ministry memo describing how migrants are facing torture and execution at detention camps in Libya. The country is still a key departure point for migrants from Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, and thousands of people died last year attempting the perilous crossing.

In addition to this week’s memo, a damning December 2016 report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN mission in Libya documented widespread malnutrition, forced labour, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture, and many other abuses at immigration detention centres in Libya.

The European Union has been trying to stem the flow of migrants to Europe by encouraging the Libyan government to crack down on smugglers who have taken advantage of chaos and lawlessness since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi six years ago.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, said on Saturday that a deal in which migrants rescued by European navies patrolling the Mediterranean might be sent back to Libya would only be possible once the country becomes politically stable.

Meeting in Malta tomorrow, the EU’s leaders will discuss efforts to stop the migration flow in the central Mediterranean and when they do so, it is hoped that Merkel’s words will be heeded.

Malta has proposed a deal with Libya similar to the EU’s deal with Turkey, which allows the EU to send asylum seekers back. Austria, meanwhile, actively promotes the Australian model of offshore processing centres. There also appears to be consensus to rely increasingly on “safe third country concepts” to sanction the return of non-nationals to countries of first arrival outside the EU.

The possibility that the EU will seriously consider returning migrants to Libya is an enormous concern given the grave human rights violations they would face upon return, violations they believed they had escaped - only to have be turned back to Libyan shores to face them once again.

The suggestion that the EU might get around international law and send people back to face abuse in Libya should be a non-starter.  If legal means were to be found to send these people back, it would nevertheless be a gross violation of basic decency, and it would betray the values on which the EU itself was built.

When EU leaders convene tomorrow, they absolutely must take the right decisions on the migrants facing so much peril in Libya.  They must stand up for the values upon which the bloc was built and not shrink into a state of protectionism.  Tomorrow’s talks must, at all costs, respect and protect human dignity and human rights irrespective of whether they deal with EU nationals or not, and in so doing they will show the red card to the current US administration’s blanket ban on refugees from which so many European citizens have recoiled in horror.

The EU’s very credentials are, after all, on the line.

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