Possible violation of Principle of Non-refoulement: refugees send back to Libya where war continues

Since April 2019, Libya has been the center of a military conflict between several military groups. The fights between the main opposing groups, the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Government of National Accord (GNA) severely affect the inhabitants of Libya. The fighting has escalated in the past couple of weeks, since General Khalifa Haftar (LNA) is once more trying to seize control of Tripoli. While this affects the migrants and refugees in the country, the European Union keeps sending them back.

Leaving the conflict zone
Libya is a transit country for many African migrants and refugees that try to reach Europe. Migrants and refugees in Libya are in a vulnerable position as they are caught up in military fighting and political instability. The United Nations (UN) estimates that over 1,000 civilians have died in the conflict between the rivaling groups and that “civilian installations [have been targeted and] […] left at least three people dead and several others injured”.

Many try to leave the country in order to escape the conflict zone. So far in 2020 , The International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that “more than 1,000 people have left Libya by sea since 1 January, driven in part by the heaviest clashes Tripoli has seen since hostilities began nine months ago” and further argues that “the escalation in hostilities in and around the capital, and the deteriorating humanitarian situation are the main reasons behind this increase in departures”.

Impact on migrants and refugees
Despite the escalation in violence,  the EU continues to act upon its deal with the Libyan Coastguard. A large share of the people that try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe are sent back to the warzone. IOM says that 953 migrants and refugees have been returned to Libya in 2020 and taken back to detention centres. Spokesperson for IOM, Safa Msehli, states that especially people stuck in the detention centres are vulnerable to the conflict in Libya and argues that “[t]he majority of those people departing or fleeing violence and abuse in Libya have been actually returned to the very city that is now witnessing some of the heaviest clashes.”

People that return to Libya are also at risk of human trafficking. Spokesperson for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Anais Deprade, explains in this regard that “[t]here is no guarantee that prevents refugees and migrants returned to Libyan shores from falling back into the clutches of traffickers” and urges for the deal with the Libyan Coastguard to be terminated. MSF spoke to a Libya survivor, Hassan, who explained that traffickers also intercept boats and in this way capture and traffic people.

In July 2019, more than 40 people died in the Tajoura detention center after a military attack. In December 2019, a refugee facility in Tripoli was nearly hit by bombs. Refugees state they are being recruited as soldiers to fight in the war. Meanwhile, as argued by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), people are subjected to human rights abuses in the detention centres and kicked out of refugee facilities due to overcrowding. Neither the streets nor the detention centers offer any safety for migrants and refugees in Libya.

Principle of non-refoulement and EU responsibility
The international principle of non-refoulement states that people are not to be returned to unsafe countries. Therefore, it seems odd that people are returned to Libya, where their lives are clearly in danger. As the EU collaborates with the Libyan Coastguard on maritime operations, they also have a responsibility in this. However, a spokesperson from the European Commission has stated that “[i]t is fundamentally a question of international law and additionally it is not something that the European Union has specific competence [on]”.

On January 12, the two rivaling groups agreed to a ceasefire, initiated by Russia and Turkey. However, the EU countries are divided in terms of what group to support in the conflict. Because of an internal disagreement amongst the member states, the EU has not been able to contribute to peace in the country, and keeps sending people back to Libya – leaving them in distress. The peace talks will continue on Sunday 19 January in Berlin.