From file: Migrants off the Libyan coast, February 2018 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/O.Calvo
From file: Migrants off the Libyan coast, February 2018 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/O.Calvo

Accusing EU officials and politicians of knowingly creating the “world’s deadliest migration route,” a group of international lawyers has submitted a legal document to the International Criminal Court. They are calling for the prosecution of EU member states over the deaths of thousands of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean.

More than 40,000 people have been intercepted in the Mediterranean and taken to detention camps and torture houses in the past three years under a European migration policy that is responsible for crimes against humanity, according to a legal document asking the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take the case on Monday.

The document, authored by a group of international lawyers, cites public European Union documents, statements from the French president, the German chancellor and other top European Union officials. It demands that EU member states which played a prominent role in the so-called refugee crisis, namely Italy, Germany and France, be prosecuted for the deaths of thousands of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean fleeing Libya.

The indictment also blames European migration policy for the widespread rape and torture of migrants at the hands of a Libyan coast guard that is funded and trained at the expense of European taxpayers.

"We leave it to the prosecutor … to go into the structures of power and to investigate at the heart of Brussels, of Paris, of Berlin and Rome and to see by searching in the archives of the meetings of the negotiations who was really behind the scenes trying to push for these policies that triggered the death of more than 14,000 people," said Juan Branco, a lawyer who co-wrote the report and who used to work for the ICC.

The submission names no individual official or politician but cites an ongoing ICC investigation into the fate of migrants in Libya, ordered by the UN Security Council during the bloody campaign by late dictator Moammar Gadhafi against popular protests in 2011 that ultimately toppled his regime and led to his death.

The ICC in The Hague, Netherlands, is a court of last resort that handles cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide when other countries are unwilling or unable to prosecute.

Deadly crossing

One of the crimes, according to the document, was the decision to end the Mare Nostrum rescue operation near the end of 2014. In one year, the operation launched by the Italian government rescued 150,810 migrants in the Mediterranean. The operation cost more than nine million euros a month, nearly all paid for by Italy.

It was replaced by an operation named Triton, financed by all 28 EU nations at a fraction of the cost. But unlike the earlier operation, Triton ships didn't patrol directly off the Libyan coast, the origin of most of the flimsy smuggling boats headed for Europe. 

Deaths in the Mediterranean then soared. In 2014, around 3,200 migrants died in the Mediterranean. The following year, the number rose to over 4,000, and in 2016 peaked at over 5,100 deaths and disappearances, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"The objective of this new policy was to sacrifice the lives of many in order to impact the behavior of more," according to the complaint. "It also failed. Crossings did not decrease as predicted, because the risk had little deterrent effect on those who have little to lose to begin with."

Less migration to Europe, but more crime against migrants in Libya

At that point, EU countries turned to the Libyan coast guard, sending money and boats and a degree of training to units of the loosely organized force linked to various factions of Libya's militias. 

For Alpha Kaba, a Guinean detained in slave-like conditions in Libya before ultimately making the crossing in 2016, that decision is a travesty.

Kaba was rescued by a ship operated by humanitarian organizations. Those are all but gone now from the Mediterranean, after Italy, Malta and other countries repeatedly refused to allow them to dock with migrants on board. And in the past two years, migration to Europe has considerably declined. The total for the first four months of 2019 was around 24,200 for irregular migration, 27 percent lower than a year ago, according to EU's border agency Frontex.

During the same period, the overall number of migrants dying or going missing in the Mediterranean also continued to decline: In 2018, it was 2,299; this year through June 3, the number was 519. At the same time, however, the risk of death for those who undertake a journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy has grown exponentially.

"Yes, there's no more migration, but where are all those young people that they picked up? They're in Libya and in prisons, and they're being tortured over there. If they aren't allowed in Europe, then let them go back to their countries quickly and under good conditions," said Kaba, who has received asylum in France.

The EU has repeatedly acknowledged that the treatment of migrants in Libya is of great concern, although it has declined to waiver in its support for the Libyan coast guard.

Triggering a ‘so-called tragedy’

Libya's role in the migrant crisis is already on the radar of the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. In a statement to the Security Council in May 2017, she said that her investigators were collecting and analyzing "information relating to serious and widespread crimes allegedly committed against migrants attempting to transit through Libya."

She told the council: "I am deeply alarmed by reports that thousands of vulnerable migrants, including women and children, are being held in detention centers across Libya in often inhumane conditions. Crimes, including killings, rapes and torture, are alleged to be commonplace."

The ICC receives many similar requests every year for formal investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity, and it's up to the prosecutor to decide whether to investigate and ultimately bring a case.

"The more detailed the communication, the more likely the prosecutor will take it seriously," said Dov Jacobs, a defense lawyer at the ICC who is not connected to the 243-page request.

Branco, the lawyer who co-wrote the report, said he believed the details in the report would leave the court little choice.

"(European officials) pretended that this was a tragedy that nothing could be done against it that they had no role in it," he said. "And we demonstrate very carefully that, on the contrary, they triggered this so-called tragedy."

With material from AP


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