Boris Johnson says migrants’ boats should be turned back to Libyan shores

Boris Johnson said boats carrying migrants should be turned back to Libya
Boris Johnson said boats carrying migrants should be turned back to Libya

Boris Johnson’s views on handling boat migration from Libya are uninformed and inhumane.

“I think personally the boats should be turned back as close to the shore as possible so they don’t reach the Italian mainland and that there is more of a deterrent,” the UK foreign secretary said in Rome on Thursday.

Under international and European law, EU countries cannot force women, men, and children back to Libya without assessing whether they need protection and what might happen to them upon their return there. Italy already tried it when Colonel Gaddafi was in charge. The European Court of Human Rights shot that policy down, ruling that no one should be returned to a country where they face the risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

The situation for migrants and asylum seekers in Libya today may be worse than ever before. In addition to violence and exploitation by smugglers and criminal gangs, migrants and asylum seekers face torture, rape, forced labor and even death in squalid official detention centers.

Mr. Johnson repeats the old myth that stopping the boats—or building the fences—serves as a deterrent. It does not. People determined to reach a place of safety will try again and again, and attempts to seal borders only prompt them to take new, more hidden routes, often at even greater risk and expense. The real way to deter such dangerous journeys is to offer viable, safe and legal channels to Europe, including through increased refugee resettlement.

Johnson’s claim that the EU’s anti-smuggling mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, had already forced back 200 boats to Libya drew strong denials from the mission. Operation Sophia deserves credit for saving thousands of lives. But its new direction is rather worrying: it is gearing up to begin training Libyan coast guard forces to rescue and intercept migrant boats before they leave Libyan waters.

While helping the Libyan coast guard save lives is vital, these efforts risk condemning people to violent abuse once returned to Libya. The EU should match this initiative with concrete plans to improve conditions and treatment in Libyan detention centers.

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