On Tuesday, March 30th, U.N. officials reported multiple fatalities, including three children, after a migrant transport ship capsized off Libya’s coast. This tragedy is the latest in a long trend of deadly migrant crossings on what is known as the “Central Mediterranean migrant route.” Each year, tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from countries located in the Middle East and North Africa region, transit through Libyan ports hoping to reach safety in Europe. Many never make it, and the International Organization for Migration estimates that “at least 20,000 fatalities have occurred on this route since 2014. 

Why Libya and What Are the Dangers?

Located on the northern coast of Africa, Libya serves as a geographical nexus between neighbouring countries such as Sudan, Chad, Niger, and the European continent. Each year, thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution in their home countries travel to Libya in the hopes of securing passage across the Mediterranean to then gain asylum in Europe. However, the use of Libya as a transit point has caused significant humanitarian concerns to be raised due to reports of extortion, human trafficking, and the extensive abuse of migrants. 

The fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 amidst the Arab Spring revolutions was originally seen as a beacon of hope and freedom for Libya. Yet, internal struggles for power, which have amounted to several years of civil war, have ultimately facilitated an unstable political climate for those hoping to use the country as a safe transit point to asylum. Due to a lack of unified state oversight, smuggling rings have capitalized on the opportunity to take advantage of migrants. Many of these migrants pay for transit across the Mediterranean which is often extremely unsafe, and in several cases never actually provided at all. Individuals find themselves stuck in a catch-22 whereby staying in Libya could potentially mean facing detention, torture, and xenophobic attacks. Yet, the realities of civil conflict and persecution in their countries of origin often mean that returning home is also not a viable option, leaving few alternatives for these migrants. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with sustained conflicts between opposing administrations in the western and eastern regions of Libya, has also significantly worsened conditions for the thousands of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and migrants who remain in Libya. In response, human rights organizations have highlighted the urgent need for new legislation and programs designed to support these groups in their quest for asylum instead of leaving them vulnerable to an incredibly unpredictable situation.

The EU and the Criminalization of Migrants 

Despite calls for the EU and the greater international community to revise their responses to this migrant crisis, recent legislation has increased investment into security measures designed to keep migrants on the Central Mediterranean route from reaching Europe. On February 2nd, 2020, Italy and Libya agreed upon a 3-year extension of the Memorandum of Understanding on Migration. This agreement was originally founded in 2017 as part of the EU response to an influx of “irregular arrivals” transiting mainly through the Central Mediterranean route. Under the agreement, Italy assists with the training and equipping of the Libyan National Coastguard, whose primary objective is to intercept migrant transit boats and return migrants back to detention centres in Libya. 

To date, the EU has spent more than 400 million euros funding similar programs, which are officially promoted as measures designed to disrupt illegal trafficking and save lives through search and rescue missions at sea. Though these rescue missions are vital for the preservation of life, the concurrent focus on intercepting and repatriating migrants in transit has often had the opposite effect. These security measures have done little to deter the leaders of smuggling operations, who have instead focused on finding clandestine and often more dangerous trafficking routes. As for those who are intercepted and returned to Libya, the trade-off for escaping a perilous journey with a high risk of capsizing is the reality of the extensive human rights abuses they face upon return. 

Calls for International Action 

The current policy responses and inter-governmental programs designed to address the issue of migrants transiting from Libya have given inadequate recognition of the humanitarian disaster this situation presents. Various conflict analyses of the situation in Libya have confirmed that the groups most affected by internal unrest include migrants, refugees, and IDPs. 

The EU, specifically, has proven a tendency to overemphasize the need for increased security initiatives while neglecting to properly address the implications of returning migrants to Libyan transit points. Safe and reliable access to asylum is a pillar of international human rights law, and it is far past time for governments around the world to recognize this crisis. 

Competently preventing the deaths of those who embark on the Central Mediterranean migrant route will require actions that extend far beyond the training of the Libyan Coastguard forces. E.U. government leaders must heed the advice of human rights advocates, who have highlighted the need for alternative migration policies, instead of continuing on the trajectory set by agreements such as the Memorandum of Understanding on Migration. International strategies which aim to support, instead of criminalizing migrants will be essential in ensuring that these vulnerable groups are protected from exploitation which has tragically become a frequent occurrence for those using Libya as a transit point. 

Extortion, abuse, and death should never be an inevitability for those seeking asylum–and it is now up to governments and leaders worldwide to exercise every capability of legislation and compassion to ensure that such trends do not continue.

Katie Howe

Katie is originally from the small town of Los Gatos, California and is currently in her final year of the International Relations (B.A.) program at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of interest...