GENEVA (2 October 2020) – The UN Human Rights Office is calling for urgent action to address the dire situation of migrants attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea in search of safety in Europe and to tackle the shocking conditions they face in Libya, at sea, and – frequently – upon their reception in Europe.
A team dispatched by the UN Human Rights Office to monitor the situation of migrants transiting through Libya, highlighted a cycle of violence whereby people who had faced unimaginable horrors in Libya were left to drift for days at sea, had their boats dangerously intercepted and were returned to suffer arbitrary detention, torture and other serious human rights violations in Libya, which cannot be considered a safe port for migrants.
For those rescued and disembarked on European shores, they are too often placed at risk of arbitrary detention, in conditions that may also amount to ill-treatment. The situation has become all the more acute in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with humanitarian search and rescue vessels being prevented from continuing their life-saving work, as well as a lack of access by civil society groups that help migrants.
The call by the UN Human Rights Office follows a week-long mission to Malta from 21-26 September by a team of human rights officers during which they spoke to government officials, UN partners, migrant community leaders, civil society organisations and 76 migrants – 41 men, 22 women, and 13 children – from 25 different nationalities.
Despite the dangers and suffering, migrants continue to undertake the precarious central Mediterranean journey, often multiple times, due to the absence of sufficient safe and regular migration channels.
People described the ongoing violence and insecurity they faced in Libya, including arbitrary detention, torture, trafficking, sexual violence, forced labour, sale, and other serious human rights violations and abuses.
Many reported being intercepted on previous sea crossings by the Libyan Coast Guard, including having their boats rammed or shot at, causing vessels to capsize or people to jump into the water in desperation. There were also reports that on at least one occasion the Armed Forces of Malta attempted to push a migrant boat back towards Libya, and on another occasion attempted to push a boat with migrants in the direction of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Some migrants reported that commercial vessels did not come to their assistance, while others said commercial ships picked them up but returned them to Libya where they ended up in detention centres. If true, these are serious allegations of failure to assist people in distress at sea and possible coordinated push-backs that should be duly investigated.
Regarding disembarkation in Malta, some migrants said they had been detained for several months, with little access to daylight, clean water and sanitation. They reported severe overcrowding, poor living conditions, and limited contact with the outside world, including lawyers and civil society organisations. Migrants also said they had been given only one change of clothing since arriving. “You’re in jail in Libya and now you come to Europe and prison again,” one migrant testified.
At the closed detention centre the team visited, there were multiple reports of self-harm and attempted suicide. There have also been several protests within detention centres in recent months, with security forces called in to restore order.
“The pressures on the reception system in Malta have long been known but the pandemic has clearly made an already difficult situation worse,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. “Governments are facing huge challenges because of COVID-19 but despite these challenges, human rights must always be upheld and those who are confined, out of sight as it were, must not be forgotten.”
Even when migrants are released from detention into open shelters, they face an array of problems, including a lack of information about what will happen to them and delays in asylum processing.
“What is happening to migrants in Malta – and elsewhere in Europe – is the result of a failed system of migration governance, one that fails to place the human rights of migrants and refugees at the centre and for too long has been marked by a lack of solidarity forcing frontline states such as Malta to bear the brunt of the responsibility,” said Bachelet.
“I urge the European Union and its Member States to ensure its Pact on Migration and Asylum addresses these challenges head on and results in a truly common and principled approach that ensures the respect and protection of the human rights of migrants and refugees,” she said.
The mission to Malta is part of a wider project by the UN Human Rights Office to look at issues concerning migrants in Libya and the neighbouring region, including the human rights protection of migrants in Libya, at sea, upon reception and in the context of return.