Refugees rescued by the Libyan coast guard arrive at the naval yard in Tripoli, Libya, 29 September 2015 | Photo: EPA/STR
Refugees rescued by the Libyan coast guard arrive at the naval yard in Tripoli, Libya, 29 September 2015 | Photo: EPA/STR

In a letter sent to Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, the EU's human rights watchdog has once again asked Italy to suspend its collaboration activities with Libya's controversial coast guard.

Council of Europe Commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatovic has called on Italy's foreign minister Luigi Di Maio to "suspend co-operation activities" with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard. In the letter addressed to Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, Mijatovic urged the Italian government to "introduce human rights in the Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Libya."

The government in Rome responded immediately through its permanent representative in the French city of Strasbourg, and said Italy is "fully conscious that the 2017 accord with Libya can be improved."

It said, however, that the decrease in deaths in the Mediterranean, which has dropped by roughly 60% -- from over 5,000 in 2017 to under 2.000 in 2019 --, "tells us that we must continue to work in this direction rather than disengage ourselves from this country," the government said.

In early February, Italy and Libya renewed the controversial 2017 agreement governing migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea for a period of three years. Under the terms of the new agreement, Italy will provide financial assistance to the Libyan authorities in order that Libya's coast guard is trained in rescue operations.

Despite its record of abuses, Libya's coast guard which receives training and funding from the EU continues to be the bloc's preferred partner to prevent migrants from reaching European soil.

'Serious violations in Libya'

In the letter, dated February 13, Mijatovic asked that Italy above all "fully acknowledge the current realities on the ground in Libya and the time it will necessarily take for any changes that may be secured to have an impact."

In light of the "great amount of evidence pointing to serious human rights violations faced by migrants and asylum seekers returned there," Mijatovic called for the suspension of all cooperation activities in place with Libya's coast guard that affect the return to Libya of persons intercepted at sea.

The EU's human rights chief also highlighted the need, as part of the procedure of renewing said accord, to "conduct thorough human rights risk assessments" of the impact cooperation activities may have on the right to life of migrants and asylum seekers.

At the same time, the commissioner assured she would "continue to call for more solidarity from Council of Europe member states with those countries which, like Italy, are on the frontline of migration movements to Europe."

Just last week, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) called on EU states to ensure that migrants rescued at sea are not sent back to Libya. In a statement, IOM said over 2,000 migrants "remain detained in deplorable conditions" in Libya.

'Confident that amended accord can be reached'

Italy "is confident that an amended accord with improved terms of cooperation can be reached in a timely matter," the Italian government said in its response through its permanent representative in Strasbourg.

It further said the objective of the accord was to guarantee "better protection of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya and gradually replacing the current system of detention centers with new models that adhere to the principles of the rule of law" in the framework of respect for human rights.

"Today, Italy is the only European country that carries out in Libya the humanitarian evacuation of hundreds of refugees to ensure them integration and well-being in Italian society," the statement read.

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