'Nobody should be forcibly returned to Libya': HRW chief

18 January 2018 - 13:16
Migrants sit in a rubber dinghy as they are rescued by Libyan coast guards in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, January 15, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Hani Amara Migrants sit in a rubber dinghy as they are rescued by Libyan coast guards in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, January 15, 2018.

European authorities should not be sending migrants trying to reach the continent back to Libya until the security situation there has stabilised, the chief of Human Rights Watch said.

"The way migrants are treated in Libya is horrendous, where we hear over and over stories of forced labour, forced sexual abuse, torture," Kenneth Roth said in an interview as the group released its annual report on risks around the globe.

While acknowledging Europe's right to restrict immigration after hundreds of thousands have poured into member states in recent years, Roth criticised a Brussels-backed deal that helps Libya block migrants from trying to reach Europe.

"The International Organization for Migration has said that more migrants are dying inside Libya than die once they get in a boat to cross the Mediterranean. So that gives you a sense of how bad things are," Roth said.

At least 3,100 migrants died or disappeared trying to cross to Europe last year, the IOM has said, though attempts have slowed since the deal by Libya and Italy, the main destination, to halt the flow.

Shocking images last year of black Africans being sold in Libya have led European officials to stop returning migrants to the country, Roth said.

"But they're trying to do indirectly what they can't do directly by building up and training the Libyan coastguard so that the Libyans on their own can simply return people back to the traffickers," he said.

"You can help them return home if that's what they want, but nobody should be forcibly returned to Libya."

Sparing no one 

Roth, a 62-year-old former lawyer, also underscored the risks as more populist leaders come to power around the world, while criticising Western governments for not pushing hard enough against leaders accused of rights abuses in their own countries.

While he qualified the arrival of US President Donald Trump as "a moment of despair", he was also critical of his predecessor Barack Obama over failing to close the Guantanamo prison or take stronger action against Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

"I admire President Obama," Roth said, but "he wasn't willing to pay the political price to actually close Guantanamo... He wasn't really willing to do anything to stop Assad committing mass atrocities in Syria."

Roth, an avowed Francophile, also had harsh words for President Emmanuel Macron, noting a discrepancy between his calls on Russia and Turkey to stop clamping down on opposition forces, while taking a softer line towards China, Egypt or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Where commercial opportunities are at stake or where fighting terrorism is at issue, he's been much more reluctant to push a pro-human rights agenda," Roth claimed.

HRW, which publishes about 100 reports on dozens of countries each year, has seen its prominence grow over the past two decades, becoming a multinational advocacy group employing some 425 people.

It is backed by private donations from individuals and foundations, including that of US billionaire George Soros.

"Everybody likes to pretend that they respect human rights; When we're able to show that they fall short, it's embarrassing," Roth said.

He said he was driven in part by his the experience of his father, who grew up in Nazi Germany before leaving for New York in 1938.

"I grew up hearing Hitler stories, hearing what it was like to be a young boy growing up under the Nazi regime," he said.

"And that was obviously very formative -- it made me very aware of the evil that governments can do."