Will the EU be condemned by the International Criminal Court for violating migrants’ human rights?

Press conference by Dimitris Avramopoulos, Member of the EC in charge of Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, on the European Commission’s note on migration ahead of the European Council Date: 21/06/2018. Location: Brussels – EC/Berlaymont. Photographer: Mauro Bottaro. © European Union, 2018 Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

It was two days ago when a group of lawyers sued the EU for the deaths of Libyan migrants who attempted to cross the Mediterranean. The case is being investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) which will have to rule whether or not EU nations violated human rights and are responsible for thousands of lives lost.

This is indeed an unprecedented turn of how the bloc could be found guilty for its migration policies. However, the European Commission together with EU member states rejected these accusations and claimed that their efforts instead were saving human lives in the Mediterranean.

Migration crisis in figures

Migration crisis has been a thorn for the EU leaders and officials who decide how to manage the flows of migrants fleeing their countries. More specifically, UNCHR reports that refugees’ arrivals (by sea and land) were 225.455 in 2014 with dead and missing people to be 3.538. In 2015, the arrivals reached at 1.032.408 with 3.771 deaths indicating the severeness of the problem. A year later the arrivals reduced by more than half but the deaths raised dramatically to 5.096. Furthermore, the last two years both arrivals and deaths have dropped following EU policies and actions. Currently in 2019, sea arrivals are estimated to be 20.351 whereas land arrivals and deaths have reached 6.555 and 530, respectively.

Lawyers accuse the EU of migrants’ deaths

Last Monday, human rights lawyers have submitted a 243-page document based on which they sue the EU and its member states for being responsible for the deaths of more than 12.000 migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean. More in detail, the lawyers stated: “In order to stem migration flows from Libya at all costs … and in lieu of operating safe rescue and disembarkation as the law commands, the EU is orchestrating a policy of forced transfer to concentration camps-like detention facilities [in Libya] where atrocious crimes are committed.”

The main accusations are focusing on the EU policies which seem to have violated human rights according to this group of lawyers. The change of policy in the Mediterranean in 2014, from the Mare Nostrum to Triton operation, has created huge gaps in the Libyan coast without any rescue capabilities available. Another point is the fact that Italy together with other EU countries are persecuting NGO groups which aim to rescue migrants in the sea. What is more, based on the submission, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and other EU leaders knew the risks but the EU policies which were to financially support and train Libya’s coast guard have led to the deaths of thousands of refugees.

EU’s response

The European Commission replied to these accusations yesterday via its spokesperson. Natasha Bertaud supported that EU’s actions and policies were saving migrants’ lives. She also accused traffickers and smugglers for being the reason for all those deaths. The EC spokesperson’s exact words were: “More generally, the EU track record for saving lives in the Mediterranean speaks for itself. Saving lives has been our top priority…It is not the EU’s policies that is causing these tragedies, it’s the cruel and dangerous business model used by traffickers and smugglers exploiting human misery and putting peoples’ lives at risk”.

France stated that this submission “makes no sense and has no legal basis” and that the second largest economy in the EU “has strongly engaged in the fight against human trafficking and smugglers”. In addition, Josep Borrell, foreign minister of Spain, mentioned that: “We are trying all means to help Libya provide migrants with the best possible conditions”.

Far-right parties and anti-migrant polices

The rise of populist parties such as League party in Italy cause turbulences to the migration policies in Europe. Italy’s deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, has been in favor of closing the Italian ports to NGO rescue boats and refuse migrants’ entrance. The Italian government is also considering imposing fines of up to 5.500 euros to NGOs for each refugee disembarked on Italian soil.

The latter intensifies the sayings and investigation of the group of lawyers who accuse the EU of deterring migration and violating human rights. What is more, Natasha Bertaud stated that EC president Jean-Claude Juncker had said in 2015 that the ending of the Italian operation Mare Nostrum was a mistake and as countermeasures it was decided to triple the EU’s rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.

It is difficult to say though that the entire EU is to be blamed for the migration crisis situation in the Mediterranean and for the actions taken in the last 5 years. It is true that there are countries which have been contributing a lot more that others which have been building walls and expressing openly their anti-migrant sentiments.

Therefore, it will be up to Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, who gathers evidence on alleged crimes against migrants in Libya to consider all these facts and decide whether to investigate and bring a case before the court.

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