BRUSSELS — The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, on Thursday accused the European Union and national governments of funding the criminal abuse of migrants in detention centers in Libya.
Libya’s EU-sponsored coast guard is picking up migrants trying to flee to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea and sending them back to Libya’s detention system, which is “a thriving enterprise of kidnapping, torture and extortion,” MSF International President Joanne Liu said in an open letter to EU governments
“European governments have chosen to contain people in this situation. People cannot be sent back to Libya, nor should they be contained there,” she wrote.
The EU’s executive Commission denied it was turning a blind eye to the treatment of migrants in Libya and said that its priority is in fact to end the “vicious cycle” that sees people brought to the conflict-torn country by smugglers and then trapped in camps or detention centers.
Liu rejected praise for European policies credited with having cut the number of migrants leaving Libya for Europe and drownings in the Mediterranean.
She branded such thinking as “at best, pure hypocrisy and at worse, a cynical complicity in the organized business of reducing human beings to merchandise in human traffickers’ hands.”
Liu’s letter came after a visit to one center in Libya, where she said a burly, baton-wielding guard beat back people from a grated door so she would have room to enter and inspect the facility.
“This is what European leaders call success,” she said at a news conference.
Liu told reporters that part of the problem is the lack of oversight of the use of European funds for Libya, as the bloc seeks to stop people making the dangerous sea crossing to Italy.
She said millions of euros in new EU funding for the Libyan coast guard is “basically to increase interception of people who flee” and send them back to dangerous and squalid conditions. Around 40 detention centers are open in Libya; MSF works in eight of the facilities that are deemed “official” under the weak but internationally recognized government’s control.
The EU Commission mostly channels its Libya funding through partners, like the International Organization for Migration, and the U.N.’s refugee agency.
“We are entirely aware of the absolutely unacceptable — even scandalous and inhumane — conditions that some migrants are being held in,” Commission spokeswoman Catherine Ray said. “We are taking action. We want to change the situation.”
A Commission statement said the EU has mobilized around 182 million euros ($218 million) to help and protect “vulnerable migrants in Libya, notably at disembarkation points and in detention centers; to supporting local communities most affected by migratory flows, also with a view of providing economic alternatives to trafficking and smuggling activities.”
It underlined that the EU is working with Libya’s neighbors and others to tackle the root causes of migration.
The MSF letter made no mention of accusations that under an Italy-brokered deal, Libya’s struggling government in Tripoli paid militias implicated in trafficking to now block the migrants from leaving in smugglers’ boats. Italy, which for several years has trained and equipped the Libyan coast guard, says it doesn’t make deals with traffickers.
A left-wing Italian lawmaker, Arturo Scotto, described Liu’s words about documented torture and violence in the Libya camps as “terrifying.”
In a statement, he called for “an urgent and serious reflection above all in Italy.” Scotto said the Italian Parliament should invite the MSF president to address it. “Europe cannot be complicit in this horror. We cannot let ourselves be condemned by history,” he said.
Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.