EU warned against sending would-be refugees to Libya
Both Malta and Italy are grappling with a sharp spike in illegal immigration from outside the European Union, with 36,900 arriving in Italy last year.Brussels -- Europe's refugee agency urged EU nations last month not to send would-be migrants from Africa back to Libya, warning they could face long periods of detention in a country with a poor rights record.
The warning, by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), came on the eve of talks between EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on ways to stem the flow of people across the Mediterranean Sea as summer approaches.
Early last month, Italian naval vessels escorted a boatload of around 500 people hoping to reach land in the EU to Libya and dropped them off without allowing them to apply for asylum, in a move slammed by the UN and NGOs.
"Libya cannot be considered a safe country for the disembarkation of persons intercepted by the member states in the high seas," ECRE said in a statement.
It noted that Libya is the only African country not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not have any asylum procedures and often detains people seeking protection indefinitely in extremely poor conditions.
Both Malta and Italy are grappling with a sharp spike in illegal immigration from outside the European Union, with 36,900 arriving in Italy last year -- a 75 percent increase from 2007.
Malta, whose population is about 400,000, saw a record 2,775 would-be migrants land in 2008.
Most of those making the crossing from the Libyan coast to Europe come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, asylum experts said Wednesday. Italy acknowledges that 51 percent of them need protection, one expert said.
Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Refugee Council, the only international NGO working in Libya, said that Italy's new policy "could fundamentally undermine the international refugee framework."
With the number of people attempting the potentially perilous crossing to the Italian island of Lampedusa or Malta set to increase, some EU nations prefer to try to choke off the flow at its source rather than share the refugee burden.
Hein said that 13,600 people died making the crossing between 1998 and April this year, with 1,300 of those who left Africa last year alone known to have never arrived in Europe.
"And these are only the known persons," he told reporters in Brussels.
But Hein warned of detention conditions in Libya, saying that 24-50 centres -- some of them squalid -- were thought to exist but that only a handful of them had ever been checked.