'Legal migration channels more effective than destroying boats' - Human Rights Watch

The organisation called for an assessment of the implications of the military operation, including the risk it will increase the dangers of boat migration in the Mediterranean and of trapping migrants and asylum seekers in Libya

European Union military action against human smuggling networks should not put the lives and rights of migrants and asylum seekers in jeopardy, Human Rights Watch said. 

The Council of the European Union agreed on 18 May to create a naval operation, dubbed EUNAVFOR Med, to identify, capture, and destroy boats used by smugglers in the Mediterranean.

“Smugglers and traffickers often show a complete disregard for human life and dignity, and they should be held to account for that, but military action against them could also expose migrants and asylum seekers to serious risks,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. 

“Saving lives at sea and bringing people at risk in the Mediterranean safely to EU shores should be the top priority.”

The organisation called on the EU to carefully assess the short- and long-term human rights implications of this military operation, including the risk it will increase the dangers of boat migration in the Mediterranean and of trapping migrants and asylum seekers in Libya, where they are often subjected to violence and abuse and have no possibility for lodging asylum claims.

The Council decision foresees implementing the operation in phases. The first phase will involve surveillance and patrols. Following an assessment of phase one, if EU member states agree to proceed, the second phase will include boarding, search, seizure, and diversion of boats suspected of being used by smugglers, while the third phase will involve “rendering inoperable” boats suspected of being used for smuggling.

Migrants intercepted by EU vessels in the Mediterranean, including those participating in EUNAVFOR Med, should be taken to safe ports in the EU, where those asking for protection or indicating a fear of return should undergo asylum screening.

Under no circumstances should the EU transfer boat migrants to the Libyan coast guard or disembark them in Libya, where they have no possibility of seeking asylum and where they risk being detained in appalling and abusive conditions and being harmed by the violence that is pervasive across the country, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, issued on 13 May a set of proposals towards a “European Agenda on Migration.” The proposals include positive steps, such as the creation of an EU-wide refugee resettlement scheme and a relocation mechanism to more equitably distribute responsibility for asylum seekers among EU member states, Human Rights Watch said. Several EU member states, including the UK, France, Hungary, and Poland, have already voiced their unwillingness to participate in these responsibility-sharing proposals.

The majority of the proposals, however, focus on measures to limit arrivals, including through enhancing immigration controls in sending and transit countries, regional development, and the creation of a pilot “multi-purpose center” in Niger to provide information, local protection, and resettlement opportunities.

These measures should be carefully designed to improve respect for human rights and foster conflict resolution in sending countries and to improve the capacity of transit countries to provide protection and integration for refugees, including through the creation of fair and efficient asylum systems that ensure asylum claims are properly screened with a right to appeal rejections, Human Rights Watch said. 

Such measures should scrupulously ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not forcibly returned to persecution or other serious harm and that no one is prevented from fleeing threats to his or her life or freedom.

Many, if not most, migrants and asylum seekers entering the EU irregularly willingly pay smugglers to facilitate their travel, though smugglers often deceive them about the context or conditions under which they will be transported, including by putting them in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. There are also trafficking victims among those arriving by sea and by land, who are deceived or forced to travel and who are held for ransom or otherwise abused and exploited.

Migrants and asylum seekers interviewed in Italy in May 2015 told Human Rights Watch about abuses they suffered along the migration routes from the Horn of Africa and in Libya.

These included being held hostage for months in the Sahara desert in grueling, violent conditions for months until relatives transfer money to traffickers in exchange for onward movement; beatings with wooden and iron pipes, rubber hoses, and whips; shooting deaths for attempted escapes; forced labor; and virtual detention in unsanitary, overcrowded smuggler-run “safe houses” in Libya pending departure. Smugglers routinely overload unseaworthy boats and provide insufficient food, water, and fuel for the journey.

“Destroying suspected smugglers’ boats might temporarily prevent a person from boarding an unseaworthy vessel, but the consequences don’t end there,” Sunderland said. “The EU needs to be honest in assessing how military intervention will push desperate persons to take even more dangerous journeys, what becomes of people in need of protection seeking to leave an increasingly chaotic and violent Libya, and how this squares with international obligations.”

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that there are no easy short-term solutions, but called on the EU to increase safe and legal channels into the EU as a more effective long-term solution than destroying boats.

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