Human Rights Watch has criticised the Italian government for renewing a cooperation agreement with Libya’s coastguard, which is widely believed to have committed a series of human rights abuses.
HRW said Italy was complicit in the abuses and urged Rome to suspend all support to the Libyan coastguard until the EU-backed agency committed to a clear plan to respect the safety and rights of migrants.
Thousands of migrants are being held in overcrowded detention centres, run by armed groups, where torture is rife. The centres are mostly located in western Libya, which is theoretically under the control of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
“Italy can’t paper over its complicity in the suffering of migrants and refugees who fall into the hands of the Libyan coastguard,” said Judith Sunderland of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.
Italy has helped fund and train the Libyan coastguard, which returns intercepted migrants to the holding facilities.
Earlier this week Italy put forward proposals for “significant” changes to its agreement with the Libyan coastguard including greater protection of migrants’ rights. But Rome came under fire for not suspending the pact altogether.
“Instead of tweaking the Memorandum of Understanding,” Ms Sunderland said, “the Italian authorities should insist on the closure of detention centres, direct its resources to supporting safe alternatives to detention, increase evacuations from Libya, including directly to Italy, and resume a leadership role in saving lives at sea.”
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said last month that his government would support the closing of detention facilities.
Figures from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, show that some 40,000 people have been stopped at sea and taken back to Libya since the deal was signed three years ago with Italy.
UNHCR was forced to close a gathering and departure facility for migrants in Tripoli last month after it emerged that military exercises were being conducted nearby.