EU’s unsustainable and deadly Libyan migration policy

Between May 24 and May 27 around 400 migrants and refugees have been picked up by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Libya. Two of them drowned during the operation. An additional 90 migrants and refugees have been stopped by a commercial ship and have been returned to Libya as well. The pushback operations are funded and supported by the European Union (EU) and individual member states like Malta and Italy. While Libya has been an unsafe place from the start of the EU’s so called externalized border policy, COVID-19 brings even more risks as detention camps in Libya are high-risk areas  for the spread of the virus and rescue operations on the Mediterranean Sea have been minimized. An additional element of danger is the intense civil war in Libya, which has turned into a geopolitical conflict and a proxy war between Russia and The United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the one hand and Turkey on the other. The war takes its toll on the civilian population; on June 1 another 5 civilians were killed and 11 wounded in a rocket attack near Tripoli.

The EU tries to uphold the United Nation’s (UN) weapons embargo but fails. Despite the warning signs and legal action, the EU keeps facilitating and financing pushback operations that harm migrants and refugees. Last week 30 migrants and refugees were murdered by the family of a Libyan smuggler as revenge for his death. Another refugee, a 39-year-old from Eritrea, died from a heatstroke in Zintan detention center in Libya, where temperatures reached 42 degrees.

Libya Unsafe

Safa Msehli,  a spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration  (IOM), tweeted on May 24 that it was “time for the European Union to establish a safe and quick alternative to disembarkation in Libya”. On May 26 she added that “States and ship masters have a responsibility to take people rescued at sea to ports of safety. Libya is not one.” IOM and many other international and humanitarian organisations state Libya is unsafe because of the inhumane, unhealthy and overcrowded conditions of detention. Migrants and refugees are also unsafe because they are exposed to widespread and systematic violence and extortion by a criminal web of Libyan and non-Libyan agents and authorities in what researchers from the University of Maastricht have described as “a crime against humanity orchestrated by an organized criminal network”. Another research found that of the 72 refugees that fled through Libya 100% witnessed violence and 94.4% suffered from violence mostly on a weekly basis. Nevertheless, there are currently between 700.000 and 1 million migrants and refugees from all over Africa in Libya and the EU keeps facilitating pushback operations to Libya.

With COVID-19 and increased civil conflict, the situation has become increasingly unsafe. Even Libyan authorities themselves claimed that their ports were not safe for disembarkation, a sentiment shared by a collective of NGO’s and a collective of UN Agencies. In April IOM expressed “grave concerns” because hundreds of migrants and refugees are missing from Libyan records and they cannot access unofficial detention centers while the situation in Libya, especially in migrant and refugee detention centres, is deteriorating due to the war and COVID-19.

Lack of search and rescue

Since the COVID-19 outbreak many rescue operations charities have suspended their rescue operations. The lack of state and NGO led search and rescue operations has the IOM worried because they “are seeing a steady increase in the number of vessels on the water that we are aware of, and the absence of dedicated state and NGO-led search and rescue operations makes it difficult to know all that is happening at sea,” said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data and Analysis Centre.

They fear that ships in distress cannot be rescued if they request assistance. Other times ships in distress are not rescued, as for example in the beginning of February, when a ship made the desperate call to NGO Alarm Phone because its engine had failed and their dinghy was taking in water. In a BBC reconstruction of the night Alarm Phone sought contact with Libyan, Italian, Maltese and Frontex authorities without getting “any response really, from anyone.” Alarm Phone was on the phone with the distressed boat, slowly sinking and with people dying throughout the night; then the line dropped and the boat disappeared. None of the people on the boat have been heard from again. Reluctant to take responsibility, the states let the distressed ship sink without helping. 258 people have been recorded dead or missing in the Mediterranean since 2020, but the actual figure is likely much higher as sometimes a ship in distress cannot ask for help and risk becoming a so-called “invisible shipwrecks.” Over 20.000 migrants and refugees have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014.

Mercenary warfare

Despite the UN embargo for Libya, mercenaries and equipment from all over the world keeps pouring in without impunity, a UN investigation found. The subject of the investigation was uncovered by chance. Two former British marines and mercenaries from the United States, Australia, Britain and South Africa were in the process of selling equipment and arms to Libyan commanding warlord Khalifa Haftar when there was a disagreement about the quality of the goods. The international team fled to their boats and headed to Malta, but once there, they were caught due to issues with their boat. The UN investigation gains a glimpse into the complicated web of illegal international arms trade with falsified papers, shadow operations, shell companies and private firms such as the infamous U.S. Blackwater, which is in turn connected to an international web of Western and non-Western arms dealers and smugglers.


Libya is turning into a large geopolitical conflict with nations divided in their support. Turkey and Italy are allies of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia, Jordan, France and Greece are supporting Haftar. The U.S. remains unclear as it rhetorically supports the Tripoli-based government but keeps communication open with Haftar, who is also a dual U.S. citizen and former CIA asset. ISIS is also still in the mix, making a recent comeback after being largely defeated last year. Turkey and Russia, however, are the most involved, with to a lesser extent the UAE, in what UN officials and analysts describe as a proxy war that could end up like the Syrian conflict. The past couple of months Turkey shifted the tide of war with mercenaries and equipment, including drones, with which it successfully pushed the militia force of Khalifa Haftar away from the capital and other strategic places. In return the GNA has signed agreements that give Turkey access to gas fields in the Mediterranean, which will complicate Cyprus’ claims for gas in the Mediterranean and is against the wishes of Europe. Russia and UAE seem to be scaling up support to check Turkish power. Satellite images show that Russia covertly deployed 14 fighter jets last week, a move that has the U.S worried. UAE has sent an additional 1200 Sudanese mercenaries earlier in May a UN investigation found.

EU, migrants and refugees

Legal action has been undertaken against the EU for their involvement and financial facilitation of crimes against humanity in Libyan detention centers and because money earmarked to reduce poverty is funneled to the Libyan coastguard in what The Guardian described as the “European refugee scandal.” EU efforts to stabilize Libya, which might make the situation in Libya for migrants and refugees marginally safer, is also questionable. Despite the arms embargo and evidence, only two non-Libyans have been sanctioned, and even UN officials have called the embargo “a joke.”

In May, after months of negotiation, The EU launched a project to stop arms from flowing in via the Mediterranean Sea, project Irini. However, most of the mercenary troops and arms flow to Libya by air or by land. Furthermore, Malta vetoed the allocation of European funds to the operation, which according to the European Council of Foreign Relations is “is likely a product of Turkish influence and the promise of greater controls on emigration from Libya.” Malta says that it will not cooperate with Irini because it bears much of the burden due to the lack of EU solidarity, as only few participate in resettlement efforts that would mitigate the situation in Malta, Greece and Italy. Malta has commissioned private ships to push back migrants and refugees to Libya and Greek Authorities have illegally rounded up, smuggled and deported asylum seekers to Turkey found an international research team from Deutsche Welle, Trouw, Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat.

The situation in Libya is complex with many global actors and international funding involved. The international commitment to different warring parties combined with the fact that most arms and mercenaries come in via land or air creates the assumption that Irini will be unlikely to contribute significantly to stopping the flow of weapons, so that Libya can stabilize enough for migrants and refugees to be any safer. Malta, Greece and Italy have held an unequal load of the burden and while illegal pushback actions are never justified, their anger for the lack of solidarity from other member states is understandable. A realistic and broad EU commitment approach is needed to safe migrants and refugees from Libya without overburdening individual member states. In the meantime, search and rescue operations have to be restarted. This is both a legal and moral obligation as member states cannot simply let people drown to avoid the responsibility of taking them in.