CAIRO (AP) -- Human Rights Watch on Monday accused the European Union's border and coast guard agency of being complicit in migrant abuses by Libya by allowing the North African country's coast guard to intercept migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea for southern Europe.
Following a data-based investigation repor t released by the New York-based watchdog last Thursday, it concluded that the agency, known as Frontex, uses its aerial surveillance technology to help Libyan forces locate migrant boats -- rather than other rescue organizations or merchant ships also patrolling the Mediterranean.
Every year, thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe make their way through Libya, where a lucrative trafficking and smuggling business has flourished in a country fragmented for years between rival administrations in the east and west, each backed by different armed groups and foreign governments.
Last year, 2062 people were reported dead or missing after attempting to reach Europe by boat, according to the U.N. agency's Missing Migrants Project.
Those who survive and are caught by the Libyan coast guard and returned to the country, face an uncertain future. Thousands of other migrants have endured torture, sexual violence and extortion at the hands of guards in detention centers across Libya.
The detention centers are supposed to be run by Libya's interim authorities but notorious militia groups remain in control.
"By alerting Libyan authorities about boats carrying migrants, knowing those migrants will be returned to atrocious treatment, and despite having other options, Frontex is complicit in the abuse," said Judith Sunderland, an associate director with Human Rights Watch.
According to the report, Frontex began using drones to scan the Libyan coastline from a base in Malta in May 2021.
The strategy had no ''meaningful impact' in lowering the death rate in migrant crossings of the Mediterranean but led to a rise in the number of Libyan coastguard interceptions, the report said.
Seeking to stem the flow of migrants, the EU has given Libya's administration based in the capital, Tripoli, more than $500 million since 2015. The funds are intended to bolster its coast guard service with better vessels and equipment, and improve conditions for migrants in detention centers.
However, the policy has been heavily criticized as vast sums ended up in the hands of militiamen and traffickers, according to a 2019 AP investigation. Libya's coast guard has also profited, with members often handing over migrants intercepted at sea to militias as part of financial deals.
The HRW report concludes with a recommendation that Frontex, and other EU member states, deploy their own ships in the same areas where they now deploy drones, to ensure the migrants don't fall back into the hands of Libyan authorities.
EU members have for years fought over who should take responsibility for migrants arriving in southern Europe. They have rejected any EU-organized search and rescue missions, arguing that such a scheme would only encourage more migrants to make the journey.