Europe’s ‘business as usual’ approach is making things worse

By Bel Trew
More people are vulnerable to attacks like the one that killed 50 last week, and health ministry officials are getting desperate. Still, even after the UN’s human rights agency begged for action, nothing has changed.

Just days after 50 migrants and refugees were killed when an airstrike hit a detention centre in Libya – with no way to escape – nearly 100 people have been sent to the exact same place.

The squalid facility, housed within west Libyan militia barracks, is nestled into a frontline between armed groups loyal to the recognised government in Tripoli and the self-styled national army of warlord general Khalifa Haftar. 

According to a recent New York Times investigation, the centre is actually sitting next to a weapons depot which has already been struck, making it a prime target for yet another attack.

Survivors of the horrific 3 July attack, who were sleeping in the open terrified of another strike, were actually released or evacuated after the UN intervened.

But on Friday, 95 more vulnerable people were moved there by the West Libyan authorities according to Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The warring fiefdoms of militias have ripped Libya apart but by far the most vulnerable are the migrants, largely from sub-Saharan Africa, who are trapped in a horrific world of militia-run jails and multiple frontlines.

If they stay in Libya, they are at risk of being kidnapped and tortured or bombed in detention centres.

If they board boats bound for Europe they will be effectively turned back, because European states, including the EU’s border control agency Frontex, has stopped conducting search and rescue operations, and allowing safe disembarkation in different ports.

Independent rescue missions are now the only ones left attempting to fill the void – but face persecution by countries such as Italy, which has closed its harbours.

There are regular instances of rescue boats left floating at sea not knowing where to offload people.

In fact, Carola Rackete, the captain of an NGO rescue boat, faced jail for a brief period after forcing her way into Lampedusa.

She said migrants she had rescued were so desperate they would jump overboard. The powerful right-wing Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini called her a pirate.

But the desperation is so deep that migrants and refugees are still boarding the inflatable dinghies, and are drowning at sea. 

So this week, the UN’s human rights agency begged the world to take a different approach, and I agree.

They appealed to the EU and African Union to prevent tragedies such as 3 July by urgently evacuating and resettling at least 5,600 people being held in centres in Libya, usually in horrific conditions.

The appeal said every effort should be taken to stop boats delivering those rescued on the Mediterranean to Libya, which is obviously not a safe port. Commercial vessels, they added, had actually been directed to bring rescued passengers back to Libya.

In Libya, health ministry officials from the recognised government, which is effectively at war,  told me they were desperate.

The centre in Tajoura that was hit on 3 July was already at double capacity, and the 600 migrants who survived had to be rehoused, piling pressure on other centres. 

Ameen Hashimi, who works with the health ministry and was at the Tajoura centre shortly after it was attacked, said some of them were repatriated home via the airport, which was also hit in the crossfire.

The interior ministry is trying its best, but genuinely what should we do?” he asked.

The hundreds of thousands of people who have crossed to Europe via the Mediterranean boats have caused significant problems for countries like Italy.

But simply closing the harbours, punishing those who rescue people at sea, and forcing migrants to stay and die in war-torn Libya is not the solution.


Bel Trew is The Independent’s Middle East Correspondent, based in the region. Bel has covered the region since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, and has reported on uprisings and subsequent conflicts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.



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