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Amnesty: EU, others 'know perfectly well' about Libya's collusion with people smugglers

DW spoke with John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia, about the allegations that the EU has been complicit in the abuse of migrants in Libya.

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Amnesty says EU complicit in Libya migrant abuse – Q&A with John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International

Deutsche Welle: Amnesty International is accusing the European Union of being knowingly complicit in the abuse of refugees by people smugglers and operators of the inhumane camps in Libya. How do they come to this conclusion?

John Dalhuisen: In its desperation to stop people arriving in Europe and to shut down the central Mediterranean route, the Libyan government, with the full backing of other European governments, has entered into a string of cooperation agreements. These are with the Libyan coast guard, the Libyan Ministry of Interior, which runs the detention facilities for migrants. The idea has been to stop people leaving their country. Those authorities are acting in cahoots with a whole range of smugglers and perpetrating a range of abuses themselves. The European Union, the Italian authorities and other governments know this perfectly well. When you are partnering with organizations that are themselves committing crimes and partnering with criminals and you turn a blind eye to those abuses you become at the very least complicit. In the case of Italy you are breaching your obligations under international human rights law not to further the commission of torture in countries abroad.

Read more: Amnesty International claims EU 'complicit' in Libya migrant abuses

John Dalhuisen Amnesty International (Imago/M. Popow)

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia

What else should the EU do? What's the alternative?

The answer to bad cooperation is not no cooperation. There is a there is a need for, and a version of cooperation with the Libyan coast guard and Libyan authorities that would be a good thing. Investing in the capacity of authorities to save lives at sea is a good thing.

Read more: German government pledges €120 million for Libya migrants and refugees

But you need to invest in not just training these people. You also need to look at when people are taken back to Libya what conditions are they taken back to. If you know that they are being taken back to detention centers where they're systematically beaten, extorted, told to get on the phone call their parents back home in Senegal — beaten on the soles of their shoes while begging for a ransom to be paid for them so that they can be released — and you don't engage with the Libyan authorities to change that detention system, then you are definitely being complicit in the abuse.

So there is engaging with the Libyan coast guard, engaging with the Ministry of Interior, but insisting on things like the end of the detention system and full access for the UNHCR across all reception facilities. These are things that the European Union should be insisting on, that Italy should be insisting on, and not just cut price deals at any cost to the rights of refugees and migrants.

Read more: Amnesty: EU-AU plan to help refugees in Libya 'unrealistic'

The EU maintains the Libyan government is not in full control of the country and doesn't have sufficient control over the detention centers. How can the EU exert its influence in this situation?

When you're sitting on a budget of €46 million and you engage in extensive negotiations with these with these authorities, you do have leverage. And if indeed the conclusion is, at a certain point, that you cannot responsibly engage with these actors because there's no way you can get them to change their corrupt and abusive practices, then at that stage I think you need to reflect on a different set of policies.

Libyen | Adam Narben (DW/B. Wesel)

This man, called Adam, had his thigh slashed by people smugglers when he tried to leave Libya

But if you look at this from a wider perspective, Europe is not going to solve its migration issues in transit countries. It's about looking at countries of origin and looking at countries of arrival. It's also about ensuring safe and legal routes to Europe for asylum seekers or refugees and economic migrants alike. And it's about ensuring safe and legal routes to return people from Europe to those countries that don't have an entitlement. Unless you're looking in these areas, you'll always be looking in the wrong place.

 At the last EU-African summit French President Emmanuel Macron suggested returning migrants in Libya to their home countries, with European help. Do you think this will work?

There is an element of this plan that's entirely sensible, very humane and very necessary. But if this is really the only option you're offering those trapped in Libya you certainly have a problem. And if this is something you're offering those trapped in detention, who are being systematically tortured, it's a doubly bad idea. You're putting the refugee — the person with a claim to international protection — into a choice where you're saying, either we will offer to return you to your country where you face persecution, or you can stay here and be beaten and extorted. That's not a real choice.

The voluntary assisted returns need to be accompanied by a real program of resettlement for refugees and that's not on the table.

An aerial shot of a long line of people standing on ground that looks like desert.

Migrants wait to be transported to a detention center, in the coastal city of Sabratha, Libya

The EU commissioner for migration has said the current cooperation model has been a success because the number of people crossing the Mediterranean is way down. But is it an option to open this route again? Can we just let people in?

The number of crossings since June this summer has decreased by 67 percent and the number of deaths by roughly the same proportion. But what's being ignored is what those brought back to Libya are now being exposed to.

Not everyone floods through Libya and arrives in Europe. If everything else stays the same you will see a return to numbers of previous years, probably around 150,000 a year.

There's a question whether that's too much for Europe to be able to absorb or not. And it's a real question. In the end it comes back to the point I was making about the way to address irregular flows is by substituting them with regular flows that cut out those dangers.

Regular flows need to cover both those who are in need of protection and economic migration for which there is supply and demand. But it's not just a matter of regulating the ways in which people arrive in Europe. There needs to be a bigger conversation about safely regulating, with full respect for everyone's rights, the manner in which people are able to be returned to their home countries from Europe, if they do not have an entitlement to stay on European soil.

John Dalhuisen is Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia. The British lawyer has been working for Amnesty since 2008. The interview was conducted by Bernd Riegert.

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