International aid groups have condemned Boris Johnson's "appalling" remark that a Libyan city could become a tourism hub if only the "dead bodies" were cleared away.
The foreign secretary, speaking at the Conservative party conference on Tuesday night, said Libyans had "a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai", adding, laughing, that the "only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away".
Libya, locked in a brutal civil war since Muammar al-Qaddafi's downfall in 2011, has become a transit hub for refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East for Europe.
Many become trapped in the country, either pushed back from Europe and then detained by Libyan authorities on the coast, or immediately picked up by armed groups and held indefinitely for huge ransoms.
Refugees are held in notorious detention centres, some of which are being supported by British aid money given to the internationally recognised government as part of an wider effort to contain the refugee flow into Europe, a report by the UK's Independent Commission for Aid Impact earlier this year found.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, from Amnesty International, said the foreign secretary's comments were "shocking" and "appalling".
"For the foreign secretary to in any way joke about that chaotic situation, let alone in respect of the loss of life there, is appalling," he told BuzzFeed News. “It makes it absolutely clear [that] at the highest political level, across Europe but certainly in the UK, there is such a disdain for human rights respect.
"The situation in Libya right now, and has been for a while, is a chaotic mess and a dangerous one at that, and one of the contributing factors to that mess continues to be European, including UK, policy in respect of migration.
"It is increasingly clear that governments across Europe, including ours and including the one that Boris Johnson represents, are jettisoning human rights respect, jettisoning the lives of people, in a desperate bid to curb migration out of Libya."
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – known in the US as Doctors Without Borders – told BuzzFeed News it was "incredibly sad to hear such disregard for human beings".
Andre Heller-Perache, head of programmes for MSF UK, said for the past six years the NGO had supported frontline Libyan doctors in dire situations, often working alongside "overwhelmed" medics.
"We know the UK Government is supporting the arbitrary detention system inside the country where we have witnessed horrendous abuses of human rights, so such comments are simply yet more proof of an unashamed lack of humanity or compassion."
"As frontline responders in crises such as this, we find loss of life and suffering no laughing matter,” he said.
Number 10 said Johnson's comments were "not appropriate", and politicians across the spectrum condemned his remarks. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston called his remarks "crass", "poorly judged", and "grossly insensitive" on the BBC's Today programme.
Meanwhile, Johnson's remarks have been picked up internationally, with many expressing disbelief that the UK's chief diplomat could make such comments.
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Rose Troup Buchanan at Rose.Buchanan@BuzzFeed.com.
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