The decision by three civil society organisations to temporarily cease search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, due to increased hostility from Libyan authorities, is yet another setback for protecting the human rights of children and other people on the move around the Mediterranean.

Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières and Sea Eye all suspended efforts to rescue refugees and migrants in Libyan waters in early August, citing threatening behaviour from the EU-backed Libyan coastguard. A ship operated by the Spanish organisation Proactiva Open Arms reported Libyan authorities firing warning shots at the ship while it sailed in international waters, and threatened to shoot the vessel if the ship entered Libyan territory.

These developments fly in the face of the rights granted to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants under international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law. Rather than being rescued, boats containing people hoping to reach Europe are now being forcibly returned to Libya by the country’s coastguard.

It is both national governments and the EU’s responsibility to ensure children and other people on the move have their rights respected. But European politicians are wilfully ignoring their obligations towards some of the world’s most vulnerable people, choosing instead to turn a blind eye while Libya detains them in barbaric conditions and prevents those at sea being rescued.

Reports have also emerged of militia patrolling the Libyan coastline. Sources in the coastal city of Sabratha told Middle East Eye that several hundred policemen, civilians and army figures have formed a force preventing people on the move leaving Libya by locking them up, with others claiming the group was launched by a former mafia boss.

Children who are fleeing violence and danger, often alone, must be allowed to seek safety in another country and reunite with family members. For the EU, which itself has described Libya as ‘unsafe’, to turn a blind eye while a militia stops children leaving the country is morally reprehensible. All states have a legal obligation to protect vulnerable children and other people fleeing persecution by not sending them back into danger – or standing by when other actors do.

The blocking of search and rescue vessels, whether by the Libyan coastguard, ships operated by far-right organisations or the Italian authorities is also an unacceptable violation of the Destination Unknown campaign’s principles for protecting children on the move. Deliberately making migration routes to Europe more dangerous by pressurising search and rescue operations to cease – and potentially sacrificing human lives in the process – can never be justified.

Rather than brazenly running roughshod over the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants – or claiming ignorance when others do – the EU must instead open safe, legal routes to Europe. This is the most effective way to address people smuggling, especially when combined with sustainable investment in countries of origin that focuses on helping vulnerable people rather than stopping migration.

With Libyan authorities shooting at boats which save human lives and unaccountable militia trapping children on the move within the country, both Libya and the EU are neglecting their international obligations and deliberately placing children on the move in danger of horrific forms of abuse.

It’s time for the EU to stop washing its hands of the human rights violations which migrants and refugees are subjected to in Libya, and offer the protection vulnerable children and others desperately need instead.

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