Rights group: Italy-Libya deal puts migrants in danger

CAIRO (AP) — Human Rights Watch warned Wednesday that Italy is endangering migrants by renewing support for the Libyan coast guard, which blocks their flight and sends them back to squalid detention centers in the North African country.

Italy sees the Libyan coast guard as key to stemming a huge influx of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe and, along with the EU, has invested millions of dollars since 2017 into the coast guard’s operations. T he collapse of Libya into a patchwork of militias vying for control has turned it into a major transit country and complicated efforts to control the crisis.

The New York-based watchdog urged Italy to suspend all funding, coordination and training for the coast guard until Libya commits to shutting down militia-run detention centers in the country. About 5,000 migrants are languishing in dozens of filthy Libyan centers, where rape, torture and other abuses run rampant.

“Italy can’t paper over its complicity in the suffering of migrants and refugees who fall into the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

The U.N. refugee agency reports that the coast guard has picked up and returned roughly 40,000 migrants to war-ravaged Libya since the agreement was reached three years ago. The total number of migrants intercepted in the past month rose 121% from the same period last year. Meanwhile, Italian shores have seen an exponential drop in migrant arrivals.

Italy recently extended its contentious deal supporting the Libyan coast guard, drawing sharp criticism from humanitarian groups.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Italy’s foreign minister revealed that Rome has asked Libya to modify the accord to give humanitarian groups some responsibility for migrants intercepted by the coast guard. The proposal’s details remain vague.

Sunderland described the suggested changes as “tweaking” an already broken arrangement.

“Italian authorities should insist on the closure of detention centers, 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,” she said.

Italy, the former colonial ruler of Libya with substantial stakes in the oil-rich country, supports the weak U.N.-backed government based in the capital.

The Government of National Accord controls only a shrinking corner of the country’s west. With Turkish military backing, its militias are fighting to repel eastern-based forces laying siege to the capital.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio flew to Tripoli on Wednesday for meetings with officials in the administration, his ministry said, including Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.

The leaders discussed “joint coordination to confront illegal immigration,” according to a Libyan government statement.