Using tear gas and rubber bullets, a Libyan coastguard team forced at least 79 refugees and migrants to disembark from a vessel that had rescued them from drowning in international waters. The migrants were from Ethiopia, Eritrea, south Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia.
Instructed by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, Nivin – a Panamanian vessel serving as a vehicle carrier – had rescued over 90 refugees and migrants when the rubber boat in which they were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe began to sink in the international waters off the Libyan coast. After rescuing them on November 7, the vessel docked in the Libyan port of Misrata three days later, most likely on instructions from Italy, which has a bilateral agreement with Libya.
While 14 of the rescued disembarked, the rest refused to leave, citing fears of inhuman treatment in detention centers. Diplomats from countries, including Sudan and Somalia, went on board to convince their citizens to disembark. The refugees refused.
“Since the onset of the impasse in Misrata port, the humanitarian community has provided
humanitarian assistance on a daily basis to alleviate the suffering of the people on board and has strongly advocated for a peaceful solution to the situation, including with refugees and migrants themselves,” the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya said in a statement. However, the negotiations failed to convince the refugees to disembark.
Torture, sexual assault, forced labor have all been widely documented in Libyan detention centers. Libya is also not a party to the ‘principle of non-refoulement’ which stipulates that an asylum seeker cannot be legally sent back to the same country from where they are fleeing, fearing violence.
Had the Italian coast guards carried out the rescue themselves, they would have been obliged by EU laws to disembark the refugees in the nearest European port. Previously, when Italy had intercepted a boat carrying 200 refugees in the international waters and returned them back to Libya, the European Court of Human Rights had ruled that since there was no guarantee that Libya would not transport them back to Eritrea and Somalia from where they were fleeing,Italy had violated the ‘principle of non-refoulement’.
Further, because reports of torture of migrants in Libya were well-known, Italy was also held to be in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which states. “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” However, since the Italian coastguard did not carry out the rescue on November 10 themselves, but instructed a commercial Panamanian vessel to do so, the non-refoulement principle and Article 3 of the ECHR may be conveniently ignored.
On November 20, “A joint force raided the cargo ship and used rubber bullets and tear gas to force” the refugees of the ship, the commander of Libya’s central region coastguards, Tawfiq Esskair, told Reuters.
A number of migrants who were injured in the process of forced disembarkation were taken to a hospital. Others were transported to al-Karareem detention center, where the migrants Human Rights Watch (HRW) interacted with during their field research complained about, “abuse by guards, members of armed groups, and smugglers that included beatings, inhumane detention conditions, forced labor, extortion, and sexual assault.”
“This is the worst possible conclusion to the desperate plea of the people on board the Nivin to avoid inhuman detention in Libya,” Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.
“The situation “, she added, “is the result of efforts by Italy and the European Union to obstruct rescue operations by nongovernmental organizations and empower the Libyan Coast Guard even when Europe knows that Libya is not a safe place.”