Imagine being an Eritrean refugee. First, you make the difficult decision to leave your country because of the indefinite national service that basically makes Eritreans slaves of their country. You might flee to Sudan or Israel, where you face the risk of forced return. Or you escape to Ethiopia, along with 390 other Eritreans each day. Here you will stay in a refugee camp with approximately 900,000 other refugees, waiting for a decision on whether or not you can get asylum in another country. Fleeing to Somalia is not an option either, as Somalians are massively fleeing the country because of drought and famine. 

So, instead of fleeing to a neighbouring country, you decide to flee to Europe. After all, in Europe, you will have the chance to build a better life for yourself and your family. You cross the border to Ethiopia, where you enter a refugee camp and wait until you are approached by smugglers to take you to Libya. These smugglers offer you a zero down-payment to get you to Libya. In reality, this means that the smugglers will pressure your family to pay once you reach Libya.

The trip starts with what is often called the most challenging part of the trip to Europe. Packed up with 35 others in a pick-up truck, you are driven through Sudan to Libya. This trip takes six to thirteen days, during which the car drives 24 hours a day. Once you reach Libya, you stay in an Eritrean smuggler’s house. Here, you wait until you can finally make the trip to Italy. Smugglers now contact your family to collect the payment. Out of fear for your safety, your family will probably pay.

Then, you finally get on that boat that is supposed to get you to Italy. Just a little bit longer until you can apply for asylum. But, only a few hours in, you get picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard, who receives support from the European Union (EU) to prevent refugees from reaching Europe. The Coast Guard takes you to a detention centre in Libya, where you will be detained and tortured. Sounds horrible, right? Yet, it happens on a daily basis.

Europe’s Libya deal

In February 2017, after Europe had seen the biggest influx of refugees in years, the EU made a deal with Libya to stop refugees from coming to Europe. EU now provides financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard, in exchange, the Libyan Coast Guard now locates refugee boats that try to reach Italy and takes their passengers to detention centres in Libya. Here, it aims to ‘[assist] voluntary returns of stranded migrants to their countries of origin and [to] support the evacuation of those in need of international protection’.

While this sounds like a good deal, these Libyan detention centres are accused of subjecting refugees to serious human rights violations and indefinite detention. Once refugees find themselves in detention centres, there is no system of judicial review for refugee applications. The only way out is via the IOM’s ‘voluntary’ return programme, which pushes people in need of international protection to return to their home countries, the place they fled because of violence.  

The EU is aware of human rights violations and inhumane circumstance that take place in these centres. It made efforts to improve conditions and treatment, but the effects of these efforts were found to be negligible. The EU, however, continues to invest in the Libyan Coast Guard so that it can intercept and detain more refugees. By carrying on with the Libya deal, despite being aware of the human rights violations that stem from it, the EU has become complicit in the human rights abuses in Libyan detention centres. 

Besides making a deal with Libya to prevent refugees from reaching Europe, the EU also started blocking nongovernmental rescue operations by putting up legal and bureaucratic obstacles. The Libya deal in combination with the challenges for rescue operations has increased the chances of dying while crossing from Libya to Italy from 1 in 42 in 2017 to 1 in 18 in 2018.

The unstable situation in Libya

While the EU treats Libya as a safe country, the political situation in Libya is far from stable. After Gaddafi’s 42-year rule was toppled in 2011, the country ended up in a power vacuum. Ever since, no authority has been in full control. In 2016, a UN-backed government was installed, but there are still competing political and military factions, making Libya a highly unsafe country.

This became painfully clear last August, when rival militias tried to take control of Tripoli, and the city experienced the worst fighting in years. Tripoli’s Abu Salim detention centre was threatened by militias, causing its guards to flee and abandon refugees or release them on to the streets. It was reported that refugees had to drink toilet water to survive and went days without food. Meanwhile, ‘released’ refugees were stuck on front lines, shot at or abducted by suspected traffickers. In some cases, refugees have even been forced to become actors in the Libyan war. Armed militias pulled them out of the centres to make them move heavy weapons or bullets. Anyone who resisted was beaten.

Best intentions?

EU policymakers and leaders justify the deal with Libya by saying that it is necessary to assert control over Europe’s external borders and to break the business of smugglers. Supposedly, it is also meant to protect migrants by preventing dangerous boat migration. But in reality, it is clear that the deal is intended merely to avoid the legal responsibilities that arise when migrants and asylum seekers reach EU territories. And in doing so, the EU closed an agreement with unstable governments and is complicit in human rights violations.

It makes one wonder why, only 80 years after World War 2 in which millions of European faced similar threats as current refugees, European seem to have forgotten how other countries opened their doors for them. Back then, not only did European refugees find a safe haven in countries such as the USA, but these countries also cared enough to intervene in the conflict. 

While the EU is putting vast amounts of money to avoid its legal responsibilities in terms of refugees, what is it doing to fix the problems that caused refugees to flee? What is it doing to end the system in Eritrea where young people have no other perspective than to live in poverty and suppression? What is it doing to stop weapon supplies to conflict regions? 

Moreover, climate change is expected to threaten people’s livelihoods, especially in regions such as Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, the next decades will likely see many more refugees, fleeing because of famine, drought and poverty.

European values

The European Union was built on the values of respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy equality, and the role of law. And yet, by maintaining the Libya deal, the EU manages to knowingly be complicit in human rights violations and to avoid its legal responsibilities in hosting refugees. Maybe, the EU should have a new look at its values and reconsider its Libya deal. 

Interested in human rights articles? Check out these articles on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and on LGBTI rights in the Netherlands!