The UN has backed Italy’s naval mission in Libyan waters to curb human trafficking, just as Oxfam said in a report that the effort creates a “vicious cycle” of abuse and death for migrants.
Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy to Libya, said on Tuesday (8 August) that “cooperation and transparency between Italy and Libya is the most constructive way” to stop smugglers from taking people on small boats to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
“We are on the right track in this sector, addressing a challenge that involves everyone,” he added, after meeting Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano in Rome.
Italy sent two ships to Libya last week, to help the Libyan coastguard in patrolling the sea.
In a joint press conference, Alfano pointed out that the number of migrants was 50 percent lower in July this year, compared to last year in July.
“Now that we have an opportunity to reduce the fluxes and organise refugee camps in Libya,” he said.
In a report published on Wednesday, Oxfam, an NGO, said that the plan is “the latest attempt to keep people from reaching Europe.”
It said that “bringing them back to Libyan shores creates a vicious cycle where desperate people try repeatedly to escape abuse and death, and European forces prevent them from doing so.”
The report, written by Oxfam and two Italian NGOs, MEDU (Doctors for Human Rights) and Borderline Sicilia, documents abuses suffered by migrants who came to Libya from other African countries.
“Thousands of refugees and migrants face kidnap, slavery, torture and sexual violence in Libya before crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy – if they are not killed first,” they said.
The three organisations gathered 258 testimonies of migrants who arrived in Sicily after crossing the sea from Libya and were asked about the conditions in Libya.
In one sample of 158 migrants, all but one woman interviewed had suffered sexual violence, 84 percent said they had suffered inhuman or degrading treatment, extreme violence or torture, 74 percent said they had witnessed the murder and/or torture of a travelling companion, and 80 percent said they had been denied food and water during their stay.
“These testimonies paint a horrifying picture of the lives of refugees and other migrants in Libya,” Roberto Barbieri, the executive director of Oxfam Italy, said in a statement.
“They are a damning indictment of Europe’s efforts to keep people from escaping violence, slavery and even death.”
Oxfam calls on EU leaders to “refrain from signing agreements that try to stop people in danger from leaving Libya by sea,” and to “create more safe routes for migrants.”
“Seasonal labour visas and humanitarian visas that protect refugees from persecution are examples of potential solutions,” the NGO said.
The report also pointed out that NGOs are “worried” that a code of conduct put in place for them by the Italian government, with the EU’s support, will “affect their humanitarian mandate and ability to focus on saving lives.”
The code, which, among other things, prevents NGOs from entering Libyan waters or transferring people from one boat to another, is presented as a tool to deter smugglers from putting people on small boats, knowing that NGOs will rescue them.
It has been criticised by the UN children agency, Unicef, and NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have refused to sign.
In its report, Oxfam argues that “the EU is meant to be a bastion of human rights” and that “EU member states should ensure that migrants arrive safely in Europe where they can have access to a fair and transparent process for claiming asylum.”
In his meeting with UN envoy Salame, Italian minister Alfano also asked the international body to support Italian efforts to stabilise the political situation in Libya.
Alfano said “negotiation formats in Libya must be reduced to one,” and that “the UN needs to take the leadership.”
The demand comes two weeks after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, held a meeting with the two rival Libyan political leaders, Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, to which no Italian representatives were invited.
“Political instability in Libya is not a second-tier match – it is an absolute priority,” Alfano insisted.