UN Special Envoy on Migration has accused the EU of 'blindness' when it comes to the situation in Libya for migrants | Photo: UNHCR / S. Hopper
UN Special Envoy on Migration has accused the EU of 'blindness' when it comes to the situation in Libya for migrants | Photo: UNHCR / S. Hopper

Vincent Cochetel, the UN Special Envoy on Migration accused the EU of “blindness” when it comes to the plight of refugees and migrants in Libya. Following Tuesday’s airstrike which hit a migrant detention center in Libya, he once again asked the international community to rethink its policy of returning migrants rescued at sea to Libya.

The attack on Libya was “predictable and avoidable,” wrote Vincent Cochetel on Twitter on Thursday.

“You do not put refugees and migrants in a military camp during a war,” he continued, calling it a “clear violation of International Humanitarian Law.” The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR’s chief Filippo Grandi seconded Cochetel’s thoughts, which Cochetel retweeted.

The French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) published more extracts from Cochetel’s statements on Thursday. “We knew there was a risk of attacks one day with the risk of collateral damage, intentional or unintentional, so we had called for the closure of the center but nobody listened to us,” he told AFP.

‘A certain blindness’

Cochetel identified “a certain blindness among European countries [regarding] the situation of migrants in Libya, which has been deteriorating for months.” He said that officials had to stop thinking they could carry on with “business as usual,” and pointed out that the recent fighting had made the situation much worse.Aftermath of the airstrike on Tajoura detention center, Libya, July 3, 2019 / Photo: Hazem Turkia/picture-alliance

In response to those countries who still insist that migrants intercepted at sea in the Libyan Search and Rescue zones should be returned to Libya, Cochetel called for a rethink. “People disappear between the points of disembarkation and the detention centers,” he claimed. “Some people are taken to the detention centers where they are mistreated and held arbitrarily, while others end up being rented out or sold to business people.”

The UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) issued a joint statement on Wednesday stating that they were doing “all we can to help” the situation in Libya. They estimate that 100,000 Libyans have been forced to flee their homes. UNHCR added that, in conjunction with partners that includes IOM, they have “relocated 1500 refugees from detention centers near combat to safer areas.” The IOM has also assisted 5,000 “vulnerable individuals to return to 30 countries of origin in Africa and Asia.”

Cochetel explained that conversely, because it had become harder to make the journey across the Mediterranean more migrants families were being held to ransom in order to release their relatives from detention centers in the last year. He said that he had heard stories of some people being held to ransom “three times” in Libya. He called the migrants “hostages of a political and military situation over which they have no control.”

Describing the conditions of detention centers in Libya, Cochetel said he had seen cases of “severe adult malnutrition. You see people who are just skin and bone, like in the camps in Bosnia or under the Khmer Rouge [in Cambodia].”

‘Not our responsibility’

The criticism went beyond just the EU. Cochetel also said that the humanitarian community was also talking at “cross purposes” with the Libyan authorities: The Libyans say they don’t have the money to feed people in detention centers and the humanitarians say that feeding people would “encourage the system,” and that it is “not their responsibility” either.

Cochetel noted “cases of mistreatment, beatings and injuries,” in many of the detention centers, even those run by the Libyan authorities, as well as those run by the NLA (National Liberation Army of General Khalifa Haftar). Like other international organizations, Cochetel said that it wasn’t always the guards themselves who carried out mistreatment but that they encouraged detainees to humiliate each other “in order to subjugate them, create a sense of powerlessness and impose discipline.”A child walks past mattresses laid on the floor in the women's section of the Al-Nasr detention centre in Zawiya, Libya | Photo: ANSA/UNICEF

The very worst forms of torture, perhaps not surprisingly, are carried out in the more secret detention centers. Cochetel said that people who had escaped from Bani Walid had spoken about 10 hangars reportedly holding around 500 people per hangar (so approaching 5,000 in total) where at least five bodies a week were being removed by a local religious association. “It’s appalling,” he concluded.

Changing the system

Cochetel encouraged the EU to “renew pressure on the the Libyan authorities and all the parties in the conflict to come up with an alternative to this system of arbitrary detention.” He said that the EU should help the Libyan authorities create an “alternative system of controls which does not amount to arbitrary detention.”

A quick disembarkation system for those rescued at sea and a way of making those who managed migration to be “held responsible “for the way they treated migrants.  Anyone not requiring international protection should be “sent back to their country of origin, with the requisite support.” For those who do merit international protection he asked for a more effective EU-wide distribution system to be found than the current “boat-by-boat approach” underway at the moment.

The EU, including Italy and France, have been trying to help boost the capacity of the Libyan coastguard but Cochetel felt that the process should be looked at again in order to comply with “certain precise norms, including verifying how the resources are used and how the coastguard behave.”

Libyan coastguard boat carrying around 500 migrants, mostly African, arriving at the port in the city of Misrata. PHOTO/ARCHIVE/EPA/STRINGER

Cochetel praised most of the Libyan coastguard but said that nevertheless, there were “certain criminal elements involved in the process, who are acting with total impunity.”

He pointed out that “there are currently 19 conflicts on the African continent.” Cochetel said that Europe needed to put aside what he called “strategic interests” in order to tackle the issues at their source. He noted that the situation in countries near Libya like Burkina Faso, Mali and Sudan were deteriorating or already unstable and that was helping to create new movements of people.

Most of Vincent Cochetel's statements came from a report by AFP July 4, 2019.


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