By Fatimah Elfeitori, co-founder of RAR Refugees Malaysia (NGO)
With terrorism and immigration being portrayed as two sides of the same coin, the refugee crisis has been dealt with as a threat to national security rather than a humanitarian issue. This is reflected in the latest immigration policies and measures adopted by the European nations targeting the central Mediterranean route. The hypothesis presented has been that terrorism is imported by immigrants and thus the war on terrorism necessitates curbing immigration. An alarming contradiction however comes to light when the deals with the Libyan coastguard are examined closely.
The sea crossing from Libya has been one of the two main routes in the flow of immigrants to Europe, the other being by sea from Turkey to Greece. The recent EU-Ankara deal to send refugees caught at sea back to Turkey seems at the face of it to have been largely successful in managing the flow of refugees from the eastern Mediterranean route. However this cap has been described as “putting a finger on a stream”, as it in fact led to the increase of influx through the Libyan and Moroccan routes making the need for solutions there even more dire. A recent study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) explains that “While overall numbers of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean by the eastern route were reduced significantly in 2016 by the EU-Turkey deal, death rates have increased to 2.1 per 100 in 2017, relative to 1.2 in 2016”. The crisis has prompted EU leaders to study several plans ranging from development programs and enhanced visa processes in origin countries to deals with the Libyan coast guard to prevent boats from crossing to Europe.
The possibility of an EU-Turkey deal in Libya is off the table. By designating Turkey as a ‘safe third country’, a fact contested by many, the deal complies with international refugee law principles. This results in refugees being sent back without encroaching upon the principle of non-refoulement which is the cornerstone of refugee law. This of course can not be the case in Libya, mainly owing to the security situation. It would moreover be morally reprehensible due to the inhumane detention conditions there.
Another obstacle to implementation in Libya has been the political chaos and the inability to officially sign an agreement with ‘the’ Libyan government due to ongoing power struggles and division. This was seen in the memorandum of understanding signed between Italy and the Government of National Accord (GNA) to train Libyan forces and officials to take an active role in combating illegal immigration at sea. The Libyan Court ruled that this agreement was ultra vires as the GNA did not have the authority to sign the agreement. Deals have nevertheless been made with the Libyan coast guard, a title which is oft misleading. A look at the Libyan political scene is enough to indicate that in the midst of the power struggle of three governments and dozens of militias, the ‘coast guards’ are simply a self-proclaimed group of militias.
On 25 July 2015, the EU extended the mandate of Operation Sophia, an operation launched after almost 700 migrants sunk off a ship at the shores of Lampedusa, till December 2017. The EU website describes the aims of the operation as “disrupting the business model of migrant smugglers and human traffickers in the Southern Central Mediterranean. The operation has two supporting tasks: training the Libyan Coastguard and Navy and contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya in accordance with UNSCR 2292”.
In simpler terms, the EU is to cooperate with militias to ensure Libya carries the burdens of this massive flow of migrants. Efforts are directed at vessels at sea, rather than earlier stages, to ensure vessels do not cross the Libyan waters. The Italian interior minister Marco Manniti hailed an 80 percent drop in the number of migrants reaching Italy in the past months. These numbers are unfortunately deceiving as the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean route has worsened. The migrants that don't reach Italy either perish at sea due to Operation Sophia’s destruction of vessels, which lead to smugglers to using unseaworthy vessels, or are detained in the heinous detention centres of Libya. A report by the UK House of Lords reports a tragic increase in deaths to 2,150 in 2017 to date.
The main objective of Operation Sophia has been to ensure the Libyan coastguard capture the migrants in Libyan waters and return them to Libya. This is an unprecedented form of what we may call indirect refoulement, for lack of better words. There have previously been more direct measures adopted such as Italy’s 2008 bilateral agreement establishing a push back policy by intercepting migrants and returning them to Libya, this was ruled as illegal by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The ECtHR found that Italy was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights’ prohibition of collective expulsion and of the guarantees against refoulement (article 3).
But the new agreement is smarter, the operations are now being transferred to Libyan authorities (read, mafia). By adopting such measures, European leaders avoid direct confrontation with principles of human rights they profess to stand for, while simultaneously adjusting to the changing political culture in many European states. By taking active steps to ensure refugees and economic migrants remain in Libya, Europe assents to the intolerable treatment they receive in Libya.
The inhumane detention conditions are certainly not a novel discovery. Libya is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic law or procedure for considering asylum claims. According to legislation adopted under Gaddafi’s rule, all individuals arriving in Libya without valid travel authorizations are deemed “illegal migrants” and must be locked in Libyan detention centres. Doctors Beyond Borders have recently declared that the nearly all those rescued at sea coming from Libya have been subjected to torture, sexual violence and arbitrary detention. No regulatory body manages these detention centres and the absence of accountability leaves migrants subject to the whims of criminal organizations. Amnesty International has warned against facilitating the interception and return of refugees and migrants to Libya as it “results in their arbitrary detention in centres where they are at almost certain risk torture, rape and even of being killed”.
Keeping migrants in Libya is nothing more than a distraction. Immigrants have their eyes set on Europe. The treacherous conditions in Libya do not act as deterrence but rather result in a heightened will to flee. It is also notable that although many migrants end up in the hands of smugglers, militias and the like, a few are fortunate enough to find adequately paid temporary jobs in Libya. Several female migrants find themselves working as maids in Libyan households and move in with those families. Although in many instances the families offer them permanent placements, these women refuse.
“I want to go to Italy, Libya is not a place to start a family”, says Aisha, a Nigerian national working on a farm in the outskirts of Tripoli, “there is too much instability here, I don’t feel safe”. Neither poor nor adequate conditions will deter migrants from their journey to Europe, Libya never was the goal. As the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants rightly points out, the current repressive policies do not prevent migrants from arriving, they “serve only to create the perfect conditions for underground labour markets and smuggling rings to flourish”
European strategies to curb migration to date have been shortsighted and self-centred. Shortsighted in focusing on electoral cycles and popularity without looking at the longterm implications of empowering terrorist organizations, and self-centred by disregarding both the situation of refugees and the crisis in Libya and other smuggling zones. Libya is a country deep in political and economic crisis, with nearly 250,000 people internally displaced according to Reuters and is not fit to host these amounts of migrants. Paying off Libya’s warlords at the risk of further destabilizing the fractured North African country. The idea that these groups are the gatekeepers to Europe gives them huge leverage, and with no central government, it is expected to see blackmail from forces overseeing these operations in the near future.
No matter how deep an analysis one can give of the factions and ideologies of different militias in Libya, no clear cut boundaries can be drawn. With Libya being an attractive base for different terrorist and extremist movements to reassemble their forces, Europe is doing a magnitude of harm to the global war on terrorism. Rome and its European counterparts are inadvertently arming a new generation of gunmen and traffickers. The EU plan is already beginning to backfire as seen in the recent clashes in Sabratha; the foremost smuggling hub for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The clashes resulted in the withdrawal of one of the militias which Italy cooperated with in blocking migrant departures from that area. Thousands of migrants were caught in the crossfire with no access to humanitarian aid.
As long as the refugee crisis is politicized and the immigrant dehumanized, we will continue to see band-aid policies enforced. Temporary measures to mitigate the flow only make the situation more dire. A shift to the humanitarianization of the refugee crisis through the cooperation of non-state humanitarian actors and governments is desperately needed. To tackle the issue from its routes, the stigmatized perception of immigrants must be replaced with a model of the immigrant as a human, with dignity, hopes, and aspirations.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Libya Observer