According to the International Organization for Migration, between 700,000 to 1 million migrants are expected to be held in Libya, and many are hoping to cross into Europe. Although the death toll of those making this perilous journey surpassed 5,000 in 2016, the Mediterranean crossing they hope is ahead of them is not the gravest danger they face. Libya has become a hell on earth for migrants and asylum seekers: three competing regimes are battling for legitimacy and territory, and the country is being torn apart by a civil war waged between a dozen of rival militias. As they are easy prey for kidnappers and militias, migrants routinely suffer brutal violence, extortion, and slave labour. Recent testimony from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) suggests that the situation is becoming even more dismal, with the trade of human beings becoming so normalized that public slave auctions regularly take place.
Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s Head of Operation and Emergencies told the British newspaper, The Guardian, in April 2017 that “the situation is dire. The more IOM engages inside Libya, the more we learn that it is [a] vale of tears for all too many migrants.” The Human Rights Watch World Report 2017 testifies that hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers risk harsh arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, sexual assault, widespread malnutrition, and forced labour until their families pay their ransom. The atrocious abuses committed by prison guards have led survivors to describe them as “psychopaths.” Eric Goldstein, the organization’s Deputy Middle East Director, warns that “abuses by armed groups in Libya have gone unchecked for the past five years as warlords grow stronger […] while there is no magic for Libya, countries supportive of parties to the internal conflict need to cut off aid to those responsible for abuses and impose sanction on them.”
Given the overwhelming levels of sadistic violence being perpetrated against migrants and asylum seekers in Libyan prisons, the plans of some European politicians to collaborate with the Libyan government to minimize migration from North Africa is shameful and inhumane. The ‘non-refoulement’ obligation makes it against EU and international law to return a refugee or asylum seeker to a territory where there is a risk that his or her life or freedom would be under serious threat, yet rich countries continue to hide behind borders and treat refugees as somebody else’s problem. Judith Sunderland, Associate Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch has condemned “the suggestion that the EU might think about how to get around [the] international law and send people back to face abuse in Libya, [as it] shows how low political dialogue has sunk. To send people back would violate the law, not to mention basic decency, and betray the values on which the EU and its member states were built.”
Instead, EU leaders should guarantee strong search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, seek permission for EU vessels to assist rescues in Libyan waters, and open up safe and legal routes to asylum, including the use of humanitarian visas and the enablement of family reunification. European countries should share responsibility for asylum seekers more equally, as well cohesive and consistent asylum systems should be put in place. Asylum is a human right, and justice, accountability, and basic human decency should be an integral part of political discourse, which means that rights have to be put above politics. A 2016 study conducted by the University of Oxford on newspaper coverage in the UK over the last ten years found that the most common word used with migrants or immigrants was illegal, which further demonstrates the importance of raising awareness on refugee rights, as a human being cannot be illegal. Combatting every form of xenophobia and racial discrimination, as well as expressing solidarity and support for refugees and asylum seekers is something that each of us can and should do on a day-to-day basis.
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