Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2016, 12:25 GMT

Compassion has to Work too for Boat People in Distress

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 30 September 2009
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Compassion has to Work too for Boat People in Distress, 30 September 2009, available at: [accessed 1 June 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Washington - The return of one man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing to Libya, where he got a hero's welcome, has caused an international outcry while the return of hundreds of boat migrants to Libya, where they face certain detention and probable brutal mistreatment, causes nary a peep.

Compassion was cited as the grounds for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi's release. But the word apparently isn't in the lexicon of European policymakers when boat captains ignore vessels in distress in the Mediterranean, as allegedly occurred in August to a boat of Eritreans, 75 of whom perished at sea, or when Italian coast guardsmen push boat people pleading for asylum into the arms of Libyan navy and police.

On such migrant, "Daniel", a 26-year-old Eritrean whom I interviewed in Sicily, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) of his ill treatment at the hands of the Libyans after Maltese officials intercepted his boat and turned him and his fellow passengers over to a Libyan fishing boat.

He said: "We were really tired and dehydrated when we arrived in Libya. I thought, if they beat me, I won't feel a thing. When we arrived, there were no doctors, nothing to help, just military police. They started punching us. They said: 'You think you want to go to Italy.'

"They were mocking us. We were thirsty and they were hitting us with sticks and kicking us. For about one hour they beat everyone who was on the boat.

"Then they put us in a closed truck with only two little windows, not enough air to breathe. There was no food or water on the truck...

"When we arrived at Misrata Prison, they opened the doors of the truck. As soon as the doors opened, the guards were waiting and they started beating us right away. They beat us with sticks to get us out of the truck.

"We were treated badly at Misrata. We were Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese, and a few Somalis. The rooms were not clean.

"We were only given a half hour a day to take air outside and the only reason they let us out at all was to count us. We sat in the sun. Anyone who spoke would be hit. I was beaten with a black plastic hose."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now has access to Misrata, and conditions have improved there, but the agency still lacks a formal agreement with the Libyan government.

UNHCR interviewed 82 people whom the Italian navy had returned to Libya on 1 July. Many of them alleged that the Italian naval personnel did not offer food to people who had been at sea for four days, confiscated their documents, including refugee certificates, and used force to transfer them to the Libyan vessel, resulting in the hospitalisation of six of the passengers.

HRW learned from another source that Italian naval personnel used electric-shock batons and clubs to force the migrants off the boat and that some had lacerations on their heads so severe that stitches were required.

Libya has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and has no asylum law or procedures. There is no formal mechanism for individuals seeking protection in Libya.

The European Union (EU) is currently negotiating a framework agreement with Libya to set the stage for future relations and has set the conclusion of a re-admission agreement with Libya to formalise returns as a priority.

The EU is also discussing a voluntary resettlement scheme through which EU member states might cherry-pick for acceptance a limited number of refugees who were forcibly returned to Libya.

No doubt we will hear that this, too, is an act of compassion. But the duty to rescue boats in distress at sea is a legal requirement.

And sending someone back to persecution or inhuman and degrading treatment is prohibited under European and international human rights law.

Compassion would be nice, but respect for basic human rights is an imperative of justice and law.

€¢ Bill Frelick is the refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and the author of Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy's Forced Return of Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya's Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers

Copyright notice: © Copyright, Human Rights Watch

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