Italy, Germany defend Libyan patrols after UN criticism

Italy and Germany defended Wednesday their support for Libyan coast guard patrols returning migrants back to Libya, after the U.N. human rights chief denounced the policy as inhuman.

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano and his German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel met Wednesday in Rome, a day after the U.N. released the findings of a visit to Libyan detention centers. Human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the conditions the U.N. team uncovered were "an outrage to the conscience of humanity."

The U.N. monitors, who visited Nov. 1-6, found thousands of hungry men, women and children locked up in packed hangars. Many had been victim of torture, rape, forced labor, starvation and physical violence during their journeys and in Libyan detention centers.

Under pressure from anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, the European Union has wholeheartedly backed the Italy-driven policy of beefing up Libya's coast guard patrols to prevent migrants from leaving aboard smugglers' dinghies bound for Europe. Human rights groups have denounced the policy, saying it exposes returned migrants to Libya's lawless detention centers, with no legal recourse.

Alfano insisted that Italy's support for the Libyan coast guard — which has included patrol boats and training, as well as tacit deals with militias on the ground — had saved lives and dealt a blow to the traffickers.

"We had migrants in the hands of smugglers and this represented the most tragic travel agency in the history of mankind," Alfano said. He said Italy was now funding the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization of Migration to improve conditions inside the detention centers they operate.

"We invite all those who are giving lessons to instead give more funds, more logistical support and more intervention in Libya to solve this issue," he added.

Gabriel concurred that conditions in the detention centers were unacceptable but said there were no alternatives. He called for improvements to the Libyan coast guard and to the detention centers, and for migrants to be placed with U.N. and IOM shelters, not those controlled by militias.

The U.N. mission in Libya over the weekend airlifted a first group of 25 migrants to Niger, part of a new humanitarian evacuation program to get refugees out of Libya. More airlifts are expected.

The U.N. human rights chief called for far more: Zeid demanded Libyan authorities investigate and prosecute those responsible for atrocities inside its detention centers, and for migrants sent back to Libya not to be detained at all.

"The increasing interventions of the EU and its member states have done nothing so far to reduce the level of abuses suffered by migrants," he said in a statement. On the contrary, conditions have only worsened, he said.

"We cannot be a silent witness to modern day slavery, rape and other sexual violence, and unlawful killings in the name of managing migration and preventing desperate and traumatized people from reaching Europe's shores," he said.

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AP producer Paolo Santalucia contributed.