Earlier this month, a warehouse full of imprisoned migrants in Libya came under fire, killing 30 and injuring ten. The killers were allegedly seeking revenge over an altercation that occurred a few weeks earlier in which a migrant supposedly killed a smuggler. The warehouse was in the city of Mizada about 110 miles south of Tripoli in the Nafusa Mountains and housed migrants from Bangladesh and various parts of Africa, according to a statement made by the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
The Interior Ministry in Tripoli issued an arrest warrant for the suspected attackers of the smuggler’s warehouse but attacks of these types are not uncommon and typically go on with full impunity in Libya.
Of the 10 migrants hospitalized, several showed scarring and injury synonyms with physical abuse, according to an assessment by an IOM medical staffer who referred the migrants to critical care clinic units in the capital. The incident is a stark reminder of the severe human rights violations and unethical treatment migrants face in Libya and demands the immediate reform of current policies in which migrants captured at sea on their way to Europe are returned to Libya and held indefinitely.
The current protocol is known as “Operation Sophia” in which the Italian government in partnership with the European Union (EU) funds, trains, and arms the Lybian Coast Guard illustrates numerous violations of human rights and is directly responsible for putting migrants back into the cycle of abuse in Libya. According to the Brookings Institute, the program was renewed in February of 2020 and relies incessantly on the highly disputed use of inhumane detention centers in Libya.
The IOM reports many of those captured and detained under “Operation Sophia” face severe abuse inside the facilities including overcrowding, medical neglect, and starvation. Others wind up right back into the hands of traffickers and smugglers due to systematic neglect and outright collusion with traffickers at the state level in Libya.
The poor regulation of GNA detention facilities is in part related to ongoing civil unrest in Libya. In 2014, the NATO-led removal of the former prime minister of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi, left the country leaderless and lawless with over a dozen different criminal gangs and militias competing for territorial dominance in the area. Today there are at least three centralized forces that hold dominance in the west, east, and south with dozens of small militias fighting for power in between. The instability and constant influx of people make the region a major hot spot for traffickers who prey on migrants to fund their own private military affairs.
Traffickers and smugglers exploit the desperation of migrants seeking asylum or economic relief for their financial gains and demonstrate zero regard for human life. Reporting by PBS News hour reveals numerous occasions in which smugglers will punish migrants who cannot pay their smuggler fees by abandoning them out at sea on boats with cut out engines or by selling them to criminal gangs and militants for forced labor and ransom. When ransom calls go unanswered it is not uncommon for migrants to be killed in random mass shootings similar to the one in Mizada earlier this month. The situation, which has gone on largely unstifled since at least 2014, makes Libya one the largest center of systematic slavery and abuse in the world.
Instead of taking more comprehensive efforts to address human trafficking in Libya, regional European partners continue to poor the majority of their resources into border security and detention. This year alone the IOM reports nearly 4,000 people have been intercepted at sea and returned to Libya as a part of “Operation Sophia.” The exact location of captured migrants is unknown due to poor record-keeping on behalf of GNA detention facilities; however, it is believed at least some of them were sold into slavery or captured by militants for ransom before actually making to state operated detention facilities.
The IOM and UNSMIL report numerous occurrences of unexplained disappearances and other forms of foul play at the hands of Libyan security forces over the years. For example, a 2018 report by the UN affirms UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya) received consistent testimonies from migrants and refugees about inhuman treatment, degrading conditions and collusion and complicity from representatives of state institutions and members of armed groups, “nominally integrated into state institutions in smuggling and trafficking networks.” The report also notes that migrants and refugees, interviewed by UNSMIL, have described transfers from individuals, who appeared to be state officials, to smugglers or traffickers.
Student magazine Eyes on Europe, also cites evidence of abuse inside Libyan detention sites found online. A video posted on social media on January 20th, 2018, depicts horrific scenes of torture on asylum seekers from Sudan held in Libya. Another video, also dated at the beginning of January 2020, is from a detention center in Bani Walid (a city in the district of Misurata) and shows a young Eritrean woman hanging upside down and beaten. The video was taken by state employees and was sent to her family to extort money, according to Eyes on Europe.
The fact that the European Union (EU) continues to fund and support efforts of The Lybian Coast Guard to capture and detain migrants, despite the well-documented patterns of abuse against refugees and migrants by smugglers and authorities in Libya, is a direct violation of Article 33 of Non-refoulement clause of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of refugees. The convention “forbids any country of arrival to bring back the asylum seeker to his country of origin or any, where his life can be threatened or in danger of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” It also condemns the generic repatriation of people, including refugees into zones affected by wars and climate disasters.
Not only is Libya afflicted by war and thus, an unfit zone for repatriation, it should also be noted that current practices on behalf of both Libya and Europe outright deny migrants their universal human right to process legitimate asylum claims. The criminalization of migration in Libya means that the second migrants step foot in Libya they are already regarded as guilty subject to indefinite detention without a trial. By pushing migrants back into Libya, the European Union is not only complicit in the abuse of migrants in detention centers, but it is also a partner in denying migrants a chance of legitimate due process and human dignity.
Furthermore, the instability and lack of centralized law enforcement in Libya make it virtually impossible to appropriately secure detention centers or police rampant trafficking networks in a meaningful way. Thus, the unstable state of political affairs in Libya delegitimizes any arguments that Libyan detentions could ever be deemed a sustainable solution to the European migration crisis.
Finally, the escalation of offensive migration control techniques, implemented in the latest edition of “Operation Sophia,” only further incentivizes migrants to utilize smugglers and take far more dangerous routes into Europe in attempts to avoid surveillance by the Libyan or Italian coast guard.
For centuries, Libya has been seen as the primary gateway into Europe for much of Africa and the Middle East. Its central location bordering Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia and expansive Mediterranean coastline facing Greece and Italy means flows of migrants are unlikely to slow anytime soon. The IOM estimates that there are currently more than 700,000 migrants from 40 countries in Libya. For this reason, the European approach to immigration policy demands a serious revamp. Instead of simply blocking migrant boats from Libya and sending them back into harm’s way, countries of the European Union partnered with the “Operation Sophia,” have a moral and legal obligation to build a more sustainable immigration control approach.
While aspects of “Operation Sophia” aimed at prosecuting smugglers and traffickers should remain a priority, it is equally urgent to open safe harbor zones or some form of migrant charter boats that will grant migrants easy exit from zones hostile to asylum law such as Libya. Operating safe harbor ports has long been suggested by several human rights organizations including the UN, IOM, and Human Rights Watch because it increases the likelihood those fleeing conflict and violence can enjoy a fair hearing for their asylum claims in addition to alleviating the urgency to rely on smugglers as the only viable option to cross the Mediterranean sea.
Europe may be reluctant to once again carry the burden of the migrant crisis and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. However, current conditions in Libya, as well as past compliance in working with known trafficking entities, leave the EU no choice but to step up and reform past operations detrimental to the safety and well-being of millions of migrants attempting to flee war, poverty, and persecution in their homelands.