Interview. The traffickers are looking for new routes, but in the meantime migrants have been abandoned. Europe must take 40,000 of them at least.

UNHCR: ‘Stopping the landings is not enough’

“The situation of migrants in Libya has reached levels of intolerable suffering,” said Carlotta Sami, the Southern Europe spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “That is why we must act quickly. The actions to stop the flows were very fast, now, we must move to open legal asylum procedures into Europe just as fast.” We spoke with her about the situation in Europe and North Africa.

It seems Europe is just finding out what has actually been known for a long time: that in Libya migrants are being tortured.

I think Europe is perfectly aware of the situation of refugees in Libya, because even before the report by Doctors Without Borders there were others from the United Nations agencies. Libya is known as an extremely critical situation, where there are both official detention centers and abuses and maltreatments carried out by criminals. The management of migration flows has always been entrusted to this indiscriminate and indefinite detention system.

Now, the European institutions promise to work to change the situation. Don’t you find it hypocritical?

In fact, I believe there has always been an intention to work to change it, but there have been tremendous challenges to manage it politically. For the first time, in the last Paris Summit, a clear reference was made to the deteriorating human rights situation and the need to restore respect for human rights in Libya. From our point of view, as UNHCR, both in Libya and outside, we have continued — and since April, we have increased — our pressure to have alternatives to detention, especially because we know there are families, children, vulnerable people in the centers. But we also know that there may be other solutions. Over the last 18 months, we have managed to release about 1,000 people from these centers, the most vulnerable ones. We want to continue on this road, in order to open the centers as soon as possible.

Minister Minniti also promised to commit to enforcing human rights in Libya. But since June, the Libyan Coast Guard has been bringing the migrants back.

As UNHCR, we have explicitly stated that Libya cannot be considered a safe harbor. Our priority is to save lives, and we find that the Libyan Coast Guard intercepts more people at sea. We have expanded our presence at the migrant landing points, but the problem is that the people we succor are then taken to detention centers. We have also repeatedly stressed how important the presence of the NGOs in the Mediterranean was, and we have made it even clearer that the fact that landings have decreased does not suggest that the problem is solved. Stopping landings is actually only part of the problem, but there are actually hundreds of thousands of people who continue to languish and suffer further.

UNHCR has not spared criticism about what is happening in Libya. Now both Italy and the E.U. state you are the guarantors for the respect of the human rights of migrants. Aren’t you afraid you’re being used?

We know from experience that every humanitarian situation is full of difficulties and ambiguities. We always face of a dilemma: Is it more or less risky to intervene or to stand aside? We believe that the situation in Libya has reached such a gravity for people that if we set as our main goal reducing suffering, we cannot afford not to be there. That said, our strategy has some main tracks: to be able to improve the conditions of migrants by focusing on management of open centers, which means assisting people when they are intercepted at sea. And also support Libyans, because there are more than 200,000 homeless Libyans without support.

On Thursday, Doctors Without Borders denounced a situation. A few days ago, Moas announced the suspension of rescues because migrants are taken back to Libya. Many humanitarian organizations are distancing themselves from what Europe is doing.

For us, the role of NGOs has always been very important, but it is true that the situation on the ground has changed. We know that if the intent of any policy is just to stop people, then it is unmanageable, because this implies two tasks: first, implement a serious plan against human traffickers and, at the same time, open legal access to asylum. That is why we have asked Europe to take, at least initially, 40,000 refugees among the most vulnerable. We confirm there has been a reduction of landings in Italy, but for us it is too early to draw conclusions. The traffickers are looking for new routes, but, in the meantime, we know for sure that in Libya, migrants are abandoned to themselves for a longer period. Consequently, we know that their vulnerabilities will continue to increase. They are more susceptible to abuse, ill-treatment, detention. This forces us to open legal channels quickly. The actions to stop the flows were very fast; now, we must move to open legal asylum processes just as fast.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!