By Daniel Howden
The central Mediterranean is now the busiest mixed migration route into Europe. The geography and the politics of the region have dictated roles for the main actors from the E.U. to member states Italy and Malta, as well as Libya and the countries on its southern borders in the Sahel.
II- The European Agenda
At the Ramada Plaza hotel in Tunis, the descent into lawlessness in neighboring Libya is discussed over pressed white tablecloths, under brass chandeliers, in a cavernous banquet hall. Since the international community’s evacuation from Tripoli in 2014 much of the business of government switched to two upscale neighborhoods in the capital of Tunisia.
Embassies and international aid agencies arrived like luxury squatters among their Tunisia counterparts in Berge du Lac, a strip of land reclaimed from the city’s lake. The carousel of Libya-related conferences they organize help keep afloat the five-star hotels of Gammarth, a resort area a half-hour’s drive from the center of Tunis.
The failure of these meetings to deliver significant change in Libya has bred cynicism among organizers and delegates alike. After one recent event, an international agency official shared a picture of a human rights training session for bored-looking commanders of Libya’s notorious migrant detention centers. It was captioned: “Do you think they’re listening?”
On the sidelines of a September 2017 conference on local governance in Libya, Mustfa Al-Baroni, the mayor of Zintan, a mountain city in western Libya whose fighters were influential in toppling Gadhafi, questioned whether the conference was really the best use of E.U. money.
“This money could be used for the best interests of Libya, on projects in Libya,” Albaroni said. He then reeled off a shopping list of alternative ways to spend what he imagines the budget to be, including a garbage compactor for his municipality and water pumps for boreholes.
“I heard the E.U. gave Libya millions but I don’t see it,” he said.
Transforming E.U. Foreign Policy
Traditionally, European Union foreign policy has been hard to discern. But the arrival of large numbers of refugees and migrants on European shores has brought rare clarity to E.U. institutions. Arrivals via the Eastern Mediterranean slowed dramatically under a controversial deal with Turkey in March 2016 that saw the country contain refugee flows in return for aid and political concessions. The focus then shifted to the central Mediterranean.
The mounting urgency was clear in a June 2016 communique from the European Commission: “Europe is currently experiencing unprecedented migratory flows, driven by geopolitical and economic factors that will continue, and maybe intensify. … Reports suggest that there are tens of thousands of migrants in Libya today, looking for ways to enter the E.U., with the number of arrivals increasing every day.”
The document also gives a sense of the re-gearing of all E.U. institutions to the single purpose of reducing inward migration under its Agenda on Migration: “The message that migration issues are now at the top of the E.U.’s external relations priorities has not yet been fully communicated to and appreciated by partners.”
Those “partners” stretch from the Horn of Africa to Nigeria and north through Niger to Libya. Countries willing to contain migration flows and take back their own migrants would get security sector support and development aid from the E.U., regardless of whether they had previously been international pariahs such as Sudan or Eritrea.
Not everyone, however, supports such efforts to stem migration.
“The E.U.’s single-minded pursuit of a reduction in the number of migrants reaching the continent has encroached on a range of policy areas, from foreign affairs to development aid, trade and defense,” said Giulia Lagana, E.U. migration and asylum analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute. “This has had an impact on relations with countries in Africa and elsewhere, where development targets, democracy and human rights, and even security in fragile areas, are being sidelined in the search for quick fixes to stem arrivals or step up migrant returns.”
The crossroads of all these efforts is Libya. The departure point for 95 percent of refugees and migrants on the central Mediterranean, it is a country in turmoil and without any legitimate national institutions.
The country has three main centers of power and countless armed groups. The U.N. and the E.U. chose to recognize the Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015, preempting the U.N.’s own peace process, according to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank.
The GNA is led by Fayez al-Serraj, the scion of an influential Tripoli family but a comparative unknown prior to his ascension to the presidential council. A rival parliament and a powerful warlord in the east of Libya, Khalifa Haftar, do not recognize the GNA. Nor does much of the Fezzan, Libya’s sparsely populated south. Serraj himself remains hunkered down in a naval base in Tripoli, a city governed by a shifting cast of armed groups aligned to but not controlled by the GNA.
While returning refugees and migrants to Turkey is questionable, doing so in the current conditions in Libya is illegal, critics point out.
“Any pushback of migrants and refugees to Libya would violate the international legal principle of nonrefoulement, which bars returning anyone to a place where they face real risk of serious harm,” said Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch.
By February of 2017, when E.U. heads of state met in Malta, Libya dominated the agenda. Three broad priorities emerged: a reduction in sea crossings, the improvement of conditions for migrants in Libya and development that provides alternatives to smuggling together with a renewed push to stabilize the country.
Officially the priorities were equal, but conflicts between them quickly emerged. As one E.U. diplomat working on Libya said, lip service is paid to stabilizing Libya, but “migration is the biggest concern of all for E.U. politicians.”
In Libya itself, faced with a multiparty conflict and economic collapse, Europe’s focus on migration can grate. The head of the Libya office at the International Organization for Migration, Othman Belbeisi, put it starkly: “Migration is not even among the top 10 concerns for Libyans.”
All Priorities Are Equal, But Some Priorities Are More Equal Than Others
At the center of the E.U.’s insistence that it wants to do more than just trap migrants in Libya is the $3.5 billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which includes $108 million announced in April 2017 for local development projects in Libya and improved protection for refugees and migrants. The funds are meant to compete with Libya’s people-smuggling economy that Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino valued at $390 million per year.
Five months on from its announcement, the money has been divvied up between five agencies – the United Nations children’s fund, Unicef; its migration agency, IOM; the refugee agency, UNHCR; the development program, UNDP, and the German aid corporation GIZ – but not a single development project has begun inside the country. European diplomats in Tunis are largely unsurprised by the snail’s progress of an E.U. fund disbursed through U.N. agencies.
The E.U., the U.N. and the aid agencies they fund are running their programs via remote control from Tunis. For security reasons, the U.N. agencies are allowed a rotation of between three and five international staff on the ground in Libya each week. Local staff, who are relied on for most of the work, face routine threats and intimidation from armed groups, said a senior U.N. official. “We want to avoid the traps that are at every step in Libya but we can’t do nothing,” said an E.U. diplomat familiar with the trust fund.
With nothing yet to show for its development priority, the E.U. has attempted to show it is making progress on another priority – improving conditions for migrants stuck in Libyan detention.
The lion’s share of the money allocated for that effort, some $57 million, is going to the IOM, whose main activity is its Assisted Voluntary Return and Repatriation program. The IOM began the year with a target from the E.U. to return 5,000 migrants from Libya to their countries of origin. That target has since risen to 15,000.
IOM officials say they could return more people if sender countries, such as Nigeria or Senegal, had more consular staff on the ground in Tripoli to process travel documents. These complaints come at a time when Italy is the only European country with a permanent diplomatic presence in the Libyan capital.
Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and does not offer asylum. Under laws passed with Europe’s encouragement during the Gadhafi era, illegal immigration was criminalized. Undocumented migrants are therefore liable for detention. A network of some 29 detention centers is administered under the department to counter illegal migration (DCIM), which reports to the Serraj government. Most migrants in Libya face a choice between signing up to be sent home by the IOM or indefinite detention.
While E.U. statements on detention in Libya routinely stress the role of the IOM and UNHCR in improving conditions, the pressure to show progress in Libya has fueled tensions between the U.N.’s refugee and migration agencies. In a tweet in September 2017, UNHCR’s special envoy on the central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, appeared to hit back at notions that returns were a panacea for the hellish situation faced by refugees and migrants: “Conditions in #Libya’s jails not improving. Not every1 wants or can go home. Refugees there need resettlement.”
The U.N. is seeking permission from Libyan authorities to open a secure center for refugees in Tripoli. UNHCR officials insist it would not be a refugee camp but an evacuation center where staff would identify those who qualify for refugee protection before flying them to neighboring Niger to await resettlement in the E.U. However, serious concerns remain over security for such a facility where refugees could wait for six months or more. A detachment of Gurkhas, soldiers from Nepal, are already in Tunisia on standby. U.N. officials said that any security force would have no peacekeeping mandate.
The horrific abuses suffered inside Libya’s migrant prisons range from rape and torture to forced labor. The IOM and UNHCR have limited access to the detention centers and must apply in writing before visiting – they cannot conduct spot inspections. The Danish Refugee Council and MSF also monitor conditions but the number of centers they can access has been reduced in the past year.
The prisons where international agencies have greatest access, in and around Tripoli, have seen incremental improvements over the past year with IOM building or renovating toilet blocks as well as providing generators. Access to prisons outside the capital, particularly along the coast to the west, is minimal thanks to militia checkpoints, clashes between armed groups and a thriving kidnap industry.
Inmates at the migrant centers are routinely rented out to local employers, with DCIM officials or local militia profiting. Detainees are also bought and sold by militias who extort ransom payments from their families. The arrival of international funding into the prison system has created additional incentives for armed groups to seize control of DCIM centers in search of money and legitimacy.
In an open letter on September 2017 Joanne Liu, the head of MSF, denounced the detention system in Libya as “rotten to the core.”
She wrote, “It must be named for what it is: a thriving enterprise of kidnapping, torture and extortion,” adding, “European governments have chosen to contain people in this situation. People cannot be sent back to Libya, nor should they be contained there.”
Mohamed Sifaw has a better idea than most what goes on inside the detention centers. He has been a volunteer for the past 13 years with the Libyan Red Crescent in Zawiya, a port city west of Tripoli, which has been one of the key departure points for smuggling networks. The Libyan Red Crescent is the only organization with complete access to the centers.
At the al-Nasr prison in Zawiya, run by a militia linked to smuggling networks but recognized by the DCIM since 2016, inmates survive on one meal a day. “The supplier is asking the government for money and every time the people are asking for more food,” Sifaw said.
Another detention center, one of two near Surman, was closed in August after human traffickers repeatedly entered and seized inmates, Sifaw said. The other Surman center, which is for women only, has no clean water after supplies were contaminated with salt water.
For the past three years, collecting corpses of migrants who have drowned at sea and washed up along the shoreline has been part of Sifaw’s weekly routine. The 32-year-old engineer has picked 385 bodies from the beach in Zawiya. He takes them to an informal cemetery where they are buried without ceremony. The graves are marked with the date the body was found and a number.
Recently Sifaw’s routine has been interrupted. Since August not a single body has come ashore. Locals speak of a “strict new force” bringing back migrants from the boats. “The number of security personnel is increasing,” he said. “They have new equipment and new people among the coast guards.”
To be continued
Top Photo – Meal time inside Al Nasr detention center for migrants in Zawiya, Libya. Alessio Romenzi
Daniel Howden – Editor at Refugees Deeply, former at Guardian, and The Economist . His Latest Investigation: Central Med: EU priorities, Libyan Realities.