Lawyers say EU policies had led to a rise in the number of migrants dying in their attempts to reach Europe.
Documents have been submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC), charging the European Union with “crimes against humanity” over the deaths of African migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya into Europe.
“This Crimes Against Humanity investigation will provide evidence that the EU had criminal intention and enacted a policy that would ensure deaths,” said lawyer Juan Bronco in an interview with TRT World.
Branco, is of the two human rights lawyers who are demanding accountability in the ICC.
The documents submitted claim that EU policy is “causing the death of thousands of human beings per year”.
By forcing back and not allowing migrants and refugees to leave Libya, the European bloc was fuelling “murder, deportation, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, rape, persecution and other inhuman acts” against migrants in Libya.
“The main evidence is in the overall pattern the European Union followed over these past years,” Bronco said, adding that the organisation had adopted policies knowing they would result in an increase in deaths.
According to the International Organization for Migration`s Missing Migrant Project, over 540 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year with 107 of those in just the last few months. The numbers are expected to continue to rise as the summer season approaches, when calmer weather means more migrant crossings.
The charges being levelled against the EU at the ICC go well beyond accusations of willful negligence in the deaths of many thousands of refugees and directly claims that after ending Operation Mare Nostrum, the EU began an insidious campaign to externalise authority to criminal elements in Libya known to commit murder, torture, rape, and who are responsible for the enslavement of migrants.
“We presented a cable to German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the Ambassador from Germany to Niger, in which he said he has visited the migrant camps in Libya and the camps were “concentration-like camps”.
“Three days later Merkel knowing this signs an agreement extending its cooperation with the Libyan coastguard knowing full well what conditions she was sending migrants back to,” Bronco said.
Criminalising help to migrants
The EU also began to criminalise NGO Search and Rescue operations (SARs) after realising that migrants were still risking their lives on rafts to cross the sea and that NGOs were struggling, but succeeding in filling the void left by Italian Navy operations.
“The EU transition from a Search and Rescue perspective to a repressive perspective didn't work out because the migrants simply had nothing to lose. Individuals planning to cross the Med were ready to take the risk of drowning to get to Europe.
“They knew in advance that their policy would ensure death, but once they realised the deaths they were causing alone was not enough to deter migrants, the EU first started criminalising NGOs who were conducting SARs to make sure that people would die, basically,” said Bronco
A debate began brewing inside Italy and the wider EU due to a leaked memo written by Frontex, a Poland-based security firm tasked with securing EU borders. In the leaked memo, Frontex claimed that NGOs conducting rescue missions had been colluding with people smugglers inside Libya.
Frontex said that the NGOs had inadvertently created a "pull factor" that led smugglers to use less fuel and unstable boats - with the expectation that rescue crews would transfer refugees into their own boats closer to the shores of Libya - which has led to increasing deaths.
These accusations against NGOs were being echoed by far-right activists and politicians across the EU. In Sicily, local prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro admitted he has "no evidence", but has not stopped repeating claims that NGOs are working with smugglers.
“The consequences are thousands and thousands of deaths, and for the EU that's successful. For many EU politicians, they have “filled their quota” of bodies. They got their political gain. They got re-elected. They managed to create a scape goat. They managed to distract the minds of the people from the bankers to migrants - and they won. It cost many lives, but it was good for them and their careers.” says Bronco
The accusations made against rescue workers led Italy to drag NGO staff in front of the Italian parliament to answer the claims being made.
Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch called the accusations against NGOs conducting rescue operations a "damaging distraction from the real challenges and responsibilities facing not only Italy, but Europe as a whole".
The damage of the accusations against NGOs conducting SARs was already done with a growing economically-disenfranchised Italian public who were easily persuaded that it was “migrants” and not “politicians” to blame for their economic woes by the time researchers could debunk the myth.
Researchers Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani concluded in their work Blaming the Rescuers: "Accusations have been founded on biased analysis which has deliberately singled out SAR NGOs from the broader web of interactions that together shape the dynamics and conditions of maritime crossings. SAR NGOs were not the cause of increased crossings and shifting smugglers' tactics, but were rather a fundamental civilian response to a dire situation that was not of their making."
Bronco adds: “And then on the second hand in parliament they started externalising their policy and turning authority over to the Libyan coastguard.”
One episode of what Libyan rescue missions entail was caught on film on March 10, 2017.
A distress call from a migrant and refugee boat received by the Italian coastguard led to the boat's interception in international waters by the Libyan coastguard.
The video shows the Libyan coastguard approaching at a migrant boat at high speed and making a dangerous manoeuvre to cut off the approach of Sea-Watch 2, a vessel used by a German non-governmental organisation for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
At the time of its distress call, the wooden boat was packed with an estimated 500 people, according to Amnesty International, and was technically in Libyan waters when the distress call reached Italian authorities.
By the time of the boat's apprehension by Libyan coastguards, it was already well into international waters.
Sea Watch said that its crew had already lowered lifeboats to safely evacuate people from the overcrowded refugee boat when the Libyan coastguard showed up and used their automatic weapons to threaten all those at the scene.
“The EU instead of stopping refoulement, decided to stop touching the migrants at sea to justify letting people drown, so they started framing things as a ‘natural disaster’. Then they started the Libyan coastguard as a proxy for the European Union to commit crimes against humanity,” said Bronco.
Italy's government, backed by the EU, continues to sign deals - not only with Libya, but also Chad and Niger - and is drawing up several more deals with African nations to stop refugees from reaching the Libyan borders.