New EU boat rescue policy under fire from UN experts


The European Union’s new policy on Mediterranean Sea rescues threatens life and breaches international standards, two independent United Nations human rights experts have cautioned.

“The EU’s proposed new action plan, including a code of conduct for organisations operating rescue boats, threatens life and breaches international standards by condemning people to face further human rights violations in Libya,” said Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Felipe González Morales and Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture.
“The solution is not to restrict access to international waters or firing weapons to threaten boats, as Libya has reportedly repeatedly done. This will result in more migrant deaths at sea and is in contravention of the obligation to rescue people in distress,” the experts added.

The code – drawn up by Italy with support from the European Commission – aims to stop privately-operated ships ferrying refugees to safety in Italy from off the Libyan coast.

It is part of a new plan to support Italy and reduce the pressure of migrant arrivals.

Earlier this week, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, also had harsh words for the proposed change, saying the code of conduct and the overall plan “suggest Italy, the European Commission and EU Member States deem the risks and reality of deaths at sea a price worth paying in order to deter migrants and refugees.”

Libya also announced a search and rescue zone beyond its territorial waters, and is restricting access to international waters by humanitarian vessels.

They added international organisations were making “tremendous rescue efforts,” with their vessels providing up to 40% of all search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

The Special Rapporteurs also expressed concern that Brussels was “trying to move Europe’s borders to Libya,” according to a press release from the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR).

They highlighted under international law migrants should be allowed to disembark at the nearest port where their lives and freedom would not be threatened and should then receive information, care and equitable processing of asylum claims.
“Libya simply cannot be regarded as a safe place to disembark and the EU policy is in denial of this fact,” they said. “Migrants intercepted by the Libyan coastguard face indefinite detention in dire and inhumane conditions, at risk of death, torture or other severe human rights violations, without any judicial review.”

They warned it was “high time” to tackle the real issue, the disproportionate impact on frontline countries, such as Greece and Italy and to relocate migrants and refugees to the other 26 European countries allowing for unrestricted movement of people under the Schengen Agreement.
“States should expand via regimes and provide more options for refugee settlement, temporary protection, visitors, family reunification, work, resident, retirement and student visas in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and to ensure that migrants no longer have to embark on such deadly journeys,” they said.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.