By William Lacy Swing
Libya is awash with tears for the tens of thousands of migrants from across Africa and beyond who have traveled there in search of a better life.
This time-honored practice began last century, when workers from the Middle East and Africa flocked to Libya for jobs in its booming petro-economy — a pattern that continues even now, despite Libya’s dismal security climate.
That practice has become conflated with the global trend of migrants from poor lands seeking jobs in developed countries — especially Europe, a continent that will require millions of new health care workers to serve its increasingly elderly populations.
Libya’s emergence as a migration choke point is a symptom of this labor demand, but not its cause. Nonetheless, with insecurity all around, the age-old trade in smuggling people to Europe has become turbo-charged — and has turned into a machine of exploitation and profit, impacting thousands of migrants as well as Libyan citizens.
What can realistically be done about this?
Tens of thousands of the estimated 700,000 migrants in Libya suffer horrendously at the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers. The abuse of migrants being held against their will in squalid, inhumane conditions is a blot on our conscience.
I was the first head of a United Nations agency to venture into the country since Gadhafi was toppled in 2011. There, I had the chance to meet with some of the country’s more than 5,000 migrants arbitrarily held in government-run detention centers.
The detainees’ harrowing stories have left an indelible mark on me, both the journeys to Libya and the endless misery of unjust detention.
Their ordeal begins before reaching Libya. Tragically ill-equipped, these sub-Saharan Africans travel in open trucks across a thousand or more miles of desert with little food or water. Countless witnesses have testified to seeing friends abandoned after falling off trucks, only to be left to die.
Once over the border and in the hands of people smugglers, a fresh nightmare begins for the migrants. One man reported systematic beating and rape; others witnessed people being starved to death or shot.
The agency I run focuses on saving migrant lives. In multiple meetings with various Libyan authorities, I have requested that they do all in their power to stop rounding up migrants and confining them to detention centers where they lose their freedom and dignity.
I have also called, repeatedly, for the establishment of alternatives to detention and to ensure accountability for abuses perpetrated against migrants in detention.
Engaging with Libyan authorities seems to be paying off. I’m happy to report that seven of the more than 30 official migrant detention centers in Libya have closed recently.
While this is progress, IOM calls for all detention centers — official and nonofficial — to be closed and replaced with open centers, where migrants’ basic human rights are respected. We stand ready to provide the necessary support to the Libyan authorities that would help make this a reality.
But let’s be clear: Exploiting migrants is not exclusively a Libyan matter.
An eternal optimism is what keeps migrants taking to the road — the same optimism that makes migrants everywhere crucial spurs to any receiving country’s economic growth. But for those who travel through Libya, optimism too often leads to a deadly trap.
In the face of often overwhelming evidence that their journeys may be undertaken in vain, they still leave. Climate change, poverty and outright persecution drive many to migrate. But migrants are enticed with false promises to take dangerous journeys. Tantalizing photos appear on social media of migrants apparently doing well in Europe, while messaging apps provide secret channels through which smugglers guide migrants on their journeys. This is a disturbing development.
The worst abuse happens at the hands of people looking to make a profit from the lucrative business of people smuggling. They show no mercy in enslaving migrants or torturing them for extortion.
A few months ago, IOM highlighted the fact that smugglers had arranged for a Facebook Live broadcast of some 75 migrants being held and tortured in a dungeon. Short video clips were sent via the mobile phone messenger platforms to anguished family members thousands of miles away.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to reach or influence the criminal gangs behind these acts. So we are asking social media giants to prevent their platforms from becoming instruments of migrant exploitation.
Many detained migrants want only to go home and right now; often, only IOM can help them. Indeed, already this year IOM has managed to return over 10,000 stranded migrants to their homes — many of whom had spent months, or even years, in Libya’s worst detention centers. Since 2015, we have flown a total of 13,530 men, women and children home to 30 countries.
The closure of all the centers is still not a reality, so to save lives we must be pragmatic. We need to provide an escape from the grinding nightmare of detention by helping migrants get home, and simultaneously protect them in detention.
In Libya today, brave IOM staff are working against the odds to improve conditions to meet minimum standards of safety, hygiene and sanitation: installing proper toilets and water purification systems, repairing sewage pipes and electrical cabling, and providing ventilation fans and water heaters.
Migrants in detention have limited choices and are subject to extreme stress. But they can make informed decisions that save their lives.
Right now, IOM’s voluntary humanitarian return assistance is one of few viable humane solutions for migrants in this Libyan nightmare. They can decide to go home in a free and informed process, with institutional safeguards. They can withdraw an application any time — as some do.
We are working to establish safe houses as alternatives to detention for the most vulnerable, especially children and victims of trafficking. We want women and children who are released from detention to be temporarily placed inside migrant community houses, and for migrants with medical and mental health conditions to be released to hospitals.
IOM is working to establish what we call a Migrant Response and Resource Mechanism that provides information and referral services including health screening, psychological first aid and support to vulnerable migrants from mobile teams. Libya, once a destination for hardworking migrants across the continent to earn a living wage in decent conditions, can become just that once again.
We have been criticized for our work in detention centers but let’s be clear: Not a single additional migrant is detained as a result, nor does our work prolong detention.
Instead, it offers a glimmer of hope for brutalized, innocent people as long as they are locked up. If we were not bearing witness and improving conditions, I know that migrants would unnecessarily die.
William Lacy Swing is the director general of the UN Migration Agency.