EU human rights chief wants clarity on Italy-Libya migrant pact

The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, has asked Italy to shed more light on a pact made with war-torn Libya to stem the flow of boat migrants crossing to Italy.

EU human rights chief wants clarity on Italy-Libya migrant pact
The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, wants more clarity on the Italy-Libya migrant deal. Photo: Adem Altan/AFP

Muiznieks wrote to Interior Minister Marco Minniti seeking clarification amid reports of torture endured by migrants trapped in Libya.

“In light of these reports on the human rights situation for migrants in Libya, giving them to the Libyan authorities or other groups exposes them to a real risk of torture or inhumane and degrading treatment,” Muiznieks wrote, according to reports in the Italian press.

“I would be grateful of you could clarify what kind of support operations your government expects to provide to the Libyan authorities in Libyan territorial waters and what safeguards Italy has put in place to ensure that people intercepted or rescued by Italian vessels in Libyan territorial waters do not subsequently face a situation contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention (on Human Rights)”.

In August, Libya barred foreign search and rescue ships from a stretch of water off its coast, with Italy also reining in the operations by making the NGOs sign up to a code of conduct.

NGOs, who between them have rescued thousands of boat migrants attempting the crossing, were accused of actively encouraging people smuggling.

Under a deal reached in July, Italy provides technical and operational support to Libya’s coastguard to boost its capacity to intercept boats and return migrants to Libya.

NGOs have argued that migrants endure brutal conditions in Libya, with many preferring to risk dying at sea rather than stay there. Italy said the move was intended to combat trafficking while reducing the number of deaths in the Mediterranean.

While the pact has stemmed the flow of migrants coming from Libya, there has been an increase in the number leaving from Tunisia.

Eight people died on Sunday night when a Tunisian navy ship crashed into a migrant boat off the country's Kerkenna islands.

In September, Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano travelled to Tripoli to propose resettling around the world a thousand vulnerable migrants stuck in Libya.

He said it would begin as a pilot scheme with “1,000 migrants” and entail “several countries around the world welcoming these people”.

More than 600,000 people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East have arrived in Italy since 2014, many of them by sea from Libya. Italy is also looking hard at other ways of discouraging migrants from crossing, including incentives for a voluntary return home.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.