A terrifying night in Libya highlights the EU's sly double standards on migrants

The choice migrants face is no choice at all. Stay in the inhuman setting of the detention centre, or go back to a war zone, or a country where you will be persecuted

Ahmed El-Gasir
Tuesday 09 July 2019 11:46
Migrants gather in aftermath of airstrike in Tripoli, Libya

In the neighbourhood of Tajoura in eastern Tripoli on the night of 2 July, two airstrikes struck a detention centre in which refugees and migrants were held. At least 53 people, reportedly including six children, were killed. At least 130 were injured. Days later, bodies were still being pulled from the rubble.

The attack, branded a war crime by the UN, has been blamed on the warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) have wrought destruction wherever they have gone. But Haftar cannot be blamed for the detention of these refugees and migrants, nor the appalling conditions in which they were forced to live before their murder from the sky.

In 2009, the then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi reached an agreement with Italy. Under the terms of the agreement, Libya would staunch the flow of migrants through the country and across the Mediterranean to the southern shores of Europe. In return, the EU would provide the Libyan coast guard with resources and training.

The deal fell apart in the wake of Gaddafi’s overthrow, but it was resurrected in 2016 by the incumbent Government of National Accord (GNA). Italy began to intercept migrants crossing the sea and return them to Libya, where they were and are held in detention centres until “the EU finds them third countries to which to relocate”. The EU’s request to establish processing offices for migrants on Libyan soil was flatly refused.

The care of migrants held in detention centres is delegated to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and funded by the EU. But this care amounts only to “hygiene kits”, consisting of toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap, and mattresses, as well as blankets in winter. The IOM provides no food or medicine, and visiting doctors only provide prescriptions; those without money, then, must go without medicine.

In some of these detention centres, migrants are abused, beaten and exploited. When we asked officials at the UN and the EU to press the IOM to visit these centres and speak to migrants, they ignored us or at least, failed to persuade the IOM.

No one checked on the unaccompanied minors held with adults. No one spoke to migrants in desperate need of medical attention. Indeed there was no apparent change at all in the IOM’s way of operating: they continued to visit detention centres, have migrants stand in long queues outside, and hand out hygiene kits and mattresses before leaving.

In Brussels last year, I asked an official at the EU Commission, “What’s the point of giving a starving migrant a hygiene kit? They need food. Babies need milk formula. Their starving mothers can’t feed them.” The reply? “We don’t want them to stay. If we provide them with food, they will stay.”

There is a reason that conditions in the detention centres are so lamentable. The IOM hopes migrants will “choose” to comply with its “voluntary return programme”, a programme funded by the EU.

But the choice with which migrants are faced is no choice at all. Stay in the cramped and inhuman settings of the detention centre, bereft of food and medicine, surrounded by exploitation and abuse, or go back, possibly to a war zone, arid land or country where you will be persecuted.

The GNA, meanwhile, has a choice of its own. It can go on as before, or it can close all the detention centres in Libya and release all the migrants housed in them. It’s clear what the GNA should do: without support from Europe, it cannot protect those migrants from Haftar nor provide them with their most basic needs. It should release them all.

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The solution to the migration crisis is to be found only through collaboration between the countries migrants leave, the countries through which they travel, and the countries to which they are headed in the latter case, EU member states. But it seems at the moment that responsible politicians are rare a commodity.

Europe is in the throes of an identity crisis and Libya continues to tear itself apart. The migration crisis will not wait for them to resolve their problems, and as the effects of climate change become increasingly grave, it will intensify. More men, more women and more children will make the perilous journey to North Africa and then Europe. And perhaps those who mourn their suffering should ask themselves, Are we doing everything we can do?

Ahmed El-Gasir is a senior human rights researcher for Libyan NGO, Human Rights Solidarity.

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