By Salem Solomon
The European Union is touting a plan it says will help Libya curb the number of migrants leaving its shores, but some advocates believe the plan does little more than trap African and Middle Eastern migrants in a war zone.
On February 3, the European Union announced it would give $212 million to help Libya’s U.N.-backed government bolster its coast guard capabilities as well as offer training and equipment in order to block smuggling routes.
Preben Aamann, spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk, said the current migration situation is both tragic and untenable. He said last year 181,000 people set off from Libya en route to Italy and approximately 5,000 drowned in the central Mediterranean. Both of those figures were all-time highs.
“It is deadly for those who try it, for many who try it, and it’s not sustainable for Europe,” Aamann said. “So, our full determination is to close that route or at least very significantly reduce the number of irregular migrants using that route. In terms of resources that we are ready to put into it, it’s quite significant.”
FILE – Migrants who’d attempted to flee to Europe wait in Libyan coast guard detention in the coastal city of Tripoli, Libya, May 16, 2016. The country’s civil war has created openings for extremists, which Western governments hope to halt.
Aamann said the European Union has already trained about 90 Libyan coast guard members as part of its Operation Sophia, a joint naval operation meant to stop human smugglers. The new plan includes efforts to block smuggling routes.
Further training for coast guard forces is expected to take place in Europe and the European Union is prepared to spend more out of its Trust Fund for Africa if needed.
“I believe that it will not be money that is the problem, it is all the other operational issues and also the situation in Libya of course that complicates this,” he said, speaking to VOA from a summit in Malta. “But the objective of reducing the number, saving lives is very clear and the determination is full.”
MSF: Strategy leaves migrants in ‘inhumane’ camps
But some human rights groups disagree with the strategy, saying it is a plan that will only leave migrants in squalid Libyan detention centers.
In a string of tweets during the EU heads of state summit, Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which has conducted a maritime rescue program, denounced the plan. The group tweeted: “hypothetically, blocking people in Libya would prevent them from drowning. In reality, it would condemn them to slow death.”
Giorgia Girometti, field communication manager for MSF in Italy, told VOA that MSF has sent people to visit detention centers in Tripoli and provide medical assistance. She called the conditions at the centers “really undignified and inhumane.”
“There is lack of water and there is no space to sleep on the ground, and you have all type of skin disease and also breath disease [respiratory infections],” she said.
Girometti has spent time on board MSF search and rescue vessels and heard stories of violence and sexual abuse against migrants in Libya.
“For sure, blocking them in national Libyan waters by the Libyan coast guard and pushing them back on Libyan shores is really, really not a good solution,” she said.
Is Tripoli an effective partner?
Another criticism of the EU program is that it is reliant on Libya’s Government of National Accord based in Tripoli. This government, although backed by the United Nations, does not control much of the country’s coastline. It is opposed by a group of former Libyan parliamentarians based in the eastern city of Tobruk who are led militarily by General Khalifa Haftar.
Other rebel groups control areas of the country, among them IS, which until recently boasted control of some territory around the city of Sirte.
Sub-Saharan migrants crowd a rubber boat as they are rescued by members of Proactive Open Arms NGO, in the Mediterranean Sea, about 22 miles north of Zumarah, Libya, Jan. 27, 2017. Italy’s coast guard, meanwhile, says it picked up about 1,000 migrants.
Aamann said, for this reason, the European Union is working with multiple aid agencies present in Libya, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the U.N. refugee agency.
“So we don’t only rely on the Libyan government who everybody knows is in a terribly difficult situation, but we also take a number of other steps,” he said.
In December, the European Union launched a $21 million program to assist migrants stuck in Libya. The program, implemented by the IOM, aims to improve conditions in detention centers and assist with repatriating migrants to their home countries.
Additionally, the new deal aims to support local communities that are on migration routes and provide assistance to generate better socio-economic conditions.
Salem Solomon is a journalist and web producer at Voice of America’s Africa Division, where she reports in English, Amharic and Tigrigna. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Poynter.org, Reuters and The Tampa Bay Times.