Wrecked boats on Lampedusa, Italy. PHOTO: Alfredo D'Amato

The situation in Libya highlights the need for protection of refugees and migrants

A political agreement that is carefully designed not to save lives is a stark reminder of what continues to take priority in the EU’s approach to migration policy. Rather, the EU must commit to search and rescue in the Mediterranean and timely disembarkation in safe ports.


Against the backdrop of the 9th anniversary of Libya's 17th February revolution and escalating fighting and frequent ceasefire violations in the North African country, EU Member States discussed the role of the EU in Libya and the potential reinstatement of naval assets in the Central Mediterranean at the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC).

In Libya, The United Nations arms embargo is routinely violated as foreign states continue to pour fuel on the fire rather than support de-escalation and peaceful dialogue. The result is that more than 150,000 people have been forced from their homes in and around Tripoli since last April, adding to over 200,000 people already displaced by conflict in other areas of Libya. The UN estimates that 1.8 million people are now affected – this in a large country with a small population of just 6.7 million.

While the discussion of the EU’s role should be about how the new leadership of the European Union can support the current ceasefire and contribute to bringing peace and stability to Libya, Member States have been divided. In particular, division over how to share responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers arriving at the EU’s external borders, and the potential of creating a “pull factor” by reinstating naval presence in the Central Mediterranean has taken centre stage in the negotiations.

Against this background, the fact that any political agreement on a new operation was reached at Monday’s meeting between EU Foreign Ministers is positive. What remains to be seen however, is what effects this will imply for those fleeing the continuing fighting in Libya onto the Mediterranean. 

Rescue ships are not a pull factor

The political agreement on a new mission in the Central Mediterranean is primarily aimed at enforcing the arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council and will, for that purpose, focus on the Eastern part of the Libyan coast where the arms are reportedly coming from and from where only few refugees and migrants depart.

Similar to Operation Sophia, the new mission is not mandated to do search and rescue. In fact – to cater for concerns of some Member States - if considered a pull factor, naval assets may be withdrawn from the area.

While there is no evidence in support of the argument that rescue ships in the Mediterranean act as a pull factor, one has only to take a quick look at the desperate situation for refugees and migrants in Libya to understand the many push factors that drive people to attempt dangerous sea crossings.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Libya, indiscriminate shelling in densely populated areas, and an increasing number of civilian casualties have led to an increase in boat departures from western Libya over the past months. Migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and Libyans themselves are fleeing the continuing fighting. Many are forcibly returned to Libya. According to IOM, over 1,500 refugees and migrants were returned to Libya in the first weeks of 2020.

But Libya is not a safe place to return to. The current humanitarian situation highlights the dire need for protection of refugees and migrants in the country as well as those who depart from Libyan shores onto the Mediterranean.

Still an opportunity for a rights-based response

The reinstatement of naval assets in the Central Mediterranean is a positive and much needed development, and something that DRC has called for. In 2015, the EU established Operation Sophia to combat smuggling and prevent loss of lives at sea, but naval assets were since suspended. Although not part of its mandate, Operation Sophia rescued up to 50,000 people between 2015-2019.

However, a political agreement as the one reached at Monday’s FAC-meeting that is carefully designed not to save lives, and that reserves the right to withdraw its assets if this proves to be the case, is a stark reminder of what continues to take priority in the EU’s approach to migration policy. Under International Maritime Law, States are obliged to establish and operate search and rescue where required and have a duty to render assistance to persons found at sea – this agreement proposes exactly the opposite.

But with a new leadership in place in Brussels and a pending new Pact on Migration and Asylum, opportunity remains for a new direction that puts rights back at the centre of the response.

The EU must commit to search and rescue in the Mediterranean and timely disembarkation in safe ports. While a strengthening of protection systems in countries of asylum and transit, including building capacities for search and rescue and safe disembarkation, are highly important, the long-term efforts that this requires must be recognized and should not be rushed based on short-term political objectives of stemming arrivals to the EU.

EU Member States must immediately allow NGO search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean – criminalising the act of saving lives and pushing people in search of safety back to war-torn Libya undermines European values. Migrant detention centres where refugees and migrants often face human rights abuses must be gradually closed, while all children must be immediately released. Lastly, resettlements and evacuations out of Libya must be increased as thousands remain caught in conflict.

DRC in Libya provides protection and humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people in Tripoli, Yefren, Benghazi and Sebha. DRC is funded by various donors including ECHO, DFID, EUTF, SDC and DANIDA.

For further information, please contact Liam Kelly, Country Director DRC Libya.