The U.N.-brokered process in Libya focused on the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries and parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2021 remains fragile. Still, the High National Elections Committee said that nominations for the presidency would start in November with voting cards distributed within weeks. Much is uncertain, including the powers of the presidency. Aside from token moves, those who remain include mercenaries brought in by Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and others to support General Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) and those brought in by Turkey, the main supporter of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Reconciliation appears far off but there has at least been a respite of over a year from fighting.
These developments must have been welcomed by the over 600,000 migrants in Libya, a destination and transit country for migrants hit hard by the conflict and worsened economic conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. But the situation appears to be worsening for those seeking asylum in Europe through the Mediterranean, and especially sub-Saharan Africans who the U.N. says are uniquely vulnerable, pointing to racism. Many are brutally detained in centers managed by the GNA’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM) and secured by militias. Often it is Frontex, the EU border and coast guard agency, who guides the Libyan Coast Guard in illegally pushing back and detaining those seeking asylum in Europe. That cooperation increased after Italy signed a memorandum of understanding in 2017 with the GNA in Tripoli. Conditions in detention centers were already well known; German diplomats compared them to concentration camps.
A recent Amnesty International report speaks of the “hellscape of detention.” Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) withdrew from two official government detention centers because of violence and inhumane treatment last June. Yet, despite the Geneva Convention and EU legislation prohibiting returning asylum-seekers to unsafe territories and a European Court of Human Rights ruling citing torture and death in Libya, the practice continues.
On October 1, 2021, Ministry of Interior militias ostensibly moved against drug and human traffickers. No such arrests were announced, but over 5,000 migrants, including 540 women—some pregnant—and 215 children were violently detained. According to MSF, “Entire families of migrants and refugees … have been captured, handcuffed and transported to detentions centers … people have been hurt and even killed; families split up, homes reduced to piles of rubble.”
Taken to miserably overcrowded detention centers in Tripoli already holding 7,000 people, they face extreme physical violence, including sexual violence and torture. There have been numerous attempts at escape with many shot dead, others rearrested to return to brutal detention and starvation rations. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which had assisted and registered most of the detained closed its day center in Tripoli when hundreds overwhelmed the facility asking for protection.
Why was the operation mounted? The answer likely lies in a cruel if lucrative business model around migrant exploitation in parts of Libya, with aspects of it increasingly in other Maghreb countries, even victimizing vulnerable locals. The Clingendael Institute says it is now more profitable to detain and further exploit migrants than get them to Europe. Detainees are beaten, tortured, and starved to get funds from their families and friends. They are subject to forced labor and forced prostitution, many are enslaved and sold, often from detention centers. In an October 2021 report by its Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, the U.N. noted the commission of crimes against humanity, including in its section on migrants. Furthermore, EU border protection at any cost and pandemic closures mean that routes used by human smugglers and those for drugs, guns, and human trafficking now overlap, further endangering migrants.
The timing of the operation may lie in the pandemic’s impact on the economy and migration patterns in sub-Saharan Africa. A World Bank phone survey in 41 countries of the region underlined that the pandemic has seriously hurt livelihoods, food security, and human capital. Many, especially women, have lost employment, mostly in cities and towns. Closures and mobility restrictions have hurt all. Agricultural income too has declined as markets closed and prices fell. Tellingly, remittances from migrants proved surprisingly resilient and, excluding Nigeria, increased by 2.3 percent in 2020 with a 2.6 percent increase expected in 2021.
The Mixed Migration Center sees the pandemic as “a threat-multiplier, compounding existing risks and vulnerabilities for refugees and migrants.” While COVID-19 may have increased the desire to migrate, it also brought decreasing resources to do so and additional fears. Thus, sea departures to Europe of sub-Saharan Africans declined even as sea departures of North Africans increased. With the flow of sub-Saharan Africans diminished—the main victims of the detention centers and enslavement—the thousands detained in Gargaresh will allow militias to extort more funds, forced labor, and forced prostitution. For many, this would not be the first time they had to pay their way out. According to the U.N., some migrants have endured this horrific loop over 10 times.
Aside from the over 12,000 detainees, thousands of migrants remain in hiding and 4,000 are encamped at the UNHCR center, desperately seeking evacuation. One Gambia-bound evacuation flight was allowed, after a suspension of flights by the Ministry of Interior in August. Yet the EU continues to cooperate with the Libyan Coast Guard and other government agencies, having sent $455 million since 2015. And while investigations into the role of Frontex have been launched by the EU parliament, the European Ombudsman, the European Court of Auditors and other agencies, little has changed. The impunity with which Frontex and EU border and coast guard national agencies operate continues undiminished. EU agreements and legislation on human rights, including the right to apply for asylum are breached daily, including violent pushbacks along the Aegean route to Greece from Turkey and in the Balkans.
Amnesty International noted in July 2021, “Violations documented against refugees and migrants are not an accident but rather the clear and anticipated outcomes of an EU-supported system of interception, disembarkation and return to detention centers notorious for abuse, built with the aim of keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe at all costs.” Yet, in a political environment in which France’s far right leader, Le Pen, is being outflanked on her right by a Trump-inspired outsider, Eric Zemmour, and even Denmark’s social democrats articulate a vision of a country with no asylum-seekers, the growth and persistence of anti-immigrant policies comes as no surprise.
Yet over the past year, there have been growing countervailing voices and actions. It was two 2020 investigative articles by a consortium of newspapers and the investigative media organizations Bellingcat and Lighthouse Reports on Libya and the Aegean route that prompted EU’s Frontex probes. Furthermore, on May 25, 2021, three NGOs, Front-Lex, the Progress lawyers Network, and the Greek Helsinki Monitor, took Frontex to the European Court of Justice. In a first, on January 2021 Frontex ceased operations in Hungary after the European Court of Justice ruled that Budapest violated EU rules when it pushed back asylum-seekers to Serbia. Currently, Matteo Salvini, former interior minister and head of Italy’s right-wing League party, is in court on kidnapping charges for his 2019 denial of entry to a ship carrying migrants and asylum-seekers abandoned at sea. These are harbingers of hopefully a more humane approach to dealing with the reality of migration. All the EU has to do is follow its own values, laws, and regulations and insist on meaningful sanctions on its Libyan counterparts; and cease assisting lawless groups.