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Sep 20 2017

Migrants Face More Danger after Disputed Italy-Libya Deal

Italy’s navy support for Libya is nowhere close to stop the migrant crisis, and it carries the added risk of endangering the lives of vulnerable migrants in line with Europe’s walls-up policy.

 

African and European leaders attending Paris summit, last week, agreed to stem migration to Europe offering to support Libyan coastguards and help Chad and Niger –all thee, transit countries for migrants- with border control. De facto closing the Mediterranean route to migrants, and retaining as many people in Africa as possible.

Overwhelmed by the non-stop migrant influx from Libya, and left with little help from fellow EU states, once-welcoming Italy has now adjusted to the European migration policy of borders and walls.

Some 125,000 migrants, mostly subSaharan Africans, have so far crossed the Mediterranean by boat this year, but an estimated 2,400 have died en route, based on UN figures. The vast majority of arrivals have landed in Italy, which lies just 300km from Libyan shores, before travelling on to other EU members.

Last month, the Italian parliament voted to allow naval missions to assist the Libyan coastguard in intercepting migrants and targeting human smugglers. The operation, requested by Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, found opposition from rival authorities in Tobruk. General Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, ordered his forces to confront any vessels engaged in the naval support mission.

The Italian move was met with widespread resistance in the North African country where the presence of foreign (military) ships would be seen as a violation of national sovereignty. As former colonial power, any perceived Italian interference in Libya is highly sensitive.

‘’Libyans don’t welcome this mission, it violates our coasts and borders. Dispatching warships in Libyan waters doesn’t stop migrants crossing the sea or fight traffickers’’, said Hamed Rafeh Alhiali, mayor of Sabha municipality.

Capital of Libya’s southern Fezzan region, Sabha is a gate to Libya for people coming from African neighbouring countries, the first town migrants see after after emerging from the desert. It is a regular stopping point for migrants who are forced into hard labour, abducted, abused and sold from one smuggling group to another.

Libya has been a springboard for illegal migration to Europe since descending into chaos after the 2011 revolution ousted its long-standing ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Fractured between two rival camps, each with its political factions and armed militias fighting for power, Libya is today a lawless place with weak state and security institutions.

Coupled with the general state of lawlessness, the bad economy and high level of violence make ‘’prime conditions for people’s right of the strongest’’, Kraay stated. Given the country’s long history of labour migration, illegal trafficking of people has become a profitable business in Libya, the only functioning economic activity.

‘’Destabilisation of Libya, where power is completely devolved to an array of armed groups, has created a fertile ground for human smuggling to flourish’’, noted Mark Micallef, senior research fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC) a research organization that documents human trafficking in Libya. This applies to all kinds of smuggling -fuel, drugs, weapons and currency a huge, illegal economy that vice versa fuels the country’s fragmentation, according to the researcher.

Well before heading to Europe, migrants face major risks while crossing Libya in search for any work opportunity or life prospect.

Marcella Kraay, project coordinator at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has met a number of people aboard the Aquarius rescue boat in the last few months. She talked about some of their experiences in travelling through Libya.

Some left their home countries fleeing war and violence, others escaping persecutions and poverty as they had nothing to live on and sustain their families back home, many of them originally came to Libya as labour migrants and never meant to go to Europe. Like an 18-year old boy from Ivory Coast who was pushed to travel from a country to the next one to pick work and support his family before he reached Libya and fell into the hands of people’s traffickers.

Once in Libya, it is not uncommon that migrants get trapped in the smuggling and human trafficking network, and find themselves working without pay and unable to leave losing control of their lives along the way.

An Eritrean man, aged 26, ran away to skip military conscription and be able to continue his studies. He recounted the dreadful crossing of the desert in Sudan with people dying on the route.

A lot of Bangladeshis were promised jobs in Libya, later kidnapped and forced into unpaid labour for months and months. They were pushed to get on overcrowded, unsafe boats and brave the Mediterranean sea. More than one told Kraay out of desperation: ‘’I’d rather die at sea than live in Libya’’.

‘’As medics, we have often examined people carrying clear traces of maltreatment, wounds of torture, their bodies show that they have been kept captive in very unsanitary conditions, under-fed if not malnourished’’, the MSF worker noted.

Migrants and refugees suffer violence of all types, illegal imprisonments, sexual abuses and tortures by local militia, human traffickers and armed gangs controlling most of the Libyan territory, according to a new report published by Oxfam, Borderline Sicilia and MEDU (Medici per i Diritti Umani).

‘’From testimonies collected, we observed that 90% of the interviewed people who travelled via Libya were subjected to inhuman treatment such as arbitrary detention, violence and torture’’, reported Adelaide Massimi, who coordinates MEDU’s mobile clinic that provides assistance to newly arrived migrants in Rome.

10% of the migrants received in the last few months were unaccompanied minors who either were subjected to beatings or witnessed violence during their detention in Libya, she also informed.

MEDU found that 80% have suffered water and food deprivation, and 70% having been imprisoned in official or unofficial detention facilities, in most cases overcrowded and with no access to sanitation. Some migrant detention centres are run by authorities, others are operated by armed groups or criminal groups with the aim of collecting migrants to be sold. Abuses perpetrated inside these detentions centres have been well documented in previous reports revealing practices of systematic violence amounting to the worst atrocities.

In the face of the Libyan hell, Italy’s plan to block and send back migrants to the Libyan mainland is of serious concern. And so it the European idea of enforcing the control of migratory flows.

Massimi reiterated that Libya is far from being a safe country, and the effect of returning people to the very country they are fleeing is imaginable.

‘’The fact that migrants are intercepted at sea and brought back where they re-enter the cycle of extortion, abuse and violence is to me out of sight out of mind’’, Kraay stressed.

She defined EU’s migration strategy ‘’a 100% policy of deterrence’’ offering no solution.

‘’We find it really unacceptable that people have no other option but to undertake dangerous journeys risking their lives, with many drowning on the doorstep of Europe’’, commented the MSF coordinator.

A unity deal on Libya remains a pre-requisite to the efficient managing of the migrant crisis and people trafficking.

‘’I am baffled that we still don’t have a European coherent strategy for Libya’’, Micallef affirmed, ‘’I find the separate initiatives pushed in by Italy and France problematic. None of those is conducive to stabilisation in Libya, it is rather high-risk’’.

GITOC researcher explained that since Libya is a power play carried out by several different armed factions, a coherent long-term strategy should not play into this process by pouring money into it. Instead, he argued, such system should be dismantled.

Stabilisation of Libya, he continued, would benefit Italy and Europe in helping to reduce the migrant flux. Reducing and managing migratory flows in a more effective, systematic way so to divert the flows away from smuggling networks would vice versa help to preserve Libya’s stability.

The mayor of Sabha suggested that the EU and international community should support Libyan municipalities, particularly those located in coastal areas, in the form of securing borders to curb the flux of migrants.

‘’If we do not ensure stability and security in Libya, there is going to be a huge backlash not just for us but Europe too’’, Alhiali added, ‘’Libya is bordered by six countries, it has a considerable amount of wealth and weapons, and the ISIS threat is still around’’.

The EU persists in keeping refugees and migrants –as far as possible- off its shores, at a very high human cost. With further blocks on the Mediterranean and no regular, safe and legal mechanisms of access to Europe, people escaping conflicts, violence and hunger will be made more desperate, pushed to take more perilous travel routes.

Moreover, Italy with its naval operation, driven by a presumed intent to stop human trafficking, in fact ends up supporting militias who participate in human trafficking (with the complicity of traffickers, police and local navy).

 

Published in The New Arab on 20 September 2017

 

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