The Eternal Buck-Passing: Europe Returns Responsibility For The Refugee Crisis To Libya

 In the past months, the Italian provisional government led by Paolo Gentiloni has taken some controversial steps in dealing with the increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees arriving every day from Libya on the southern coasts of Italy. On February 2, 2017, Gentiloni and the Prime Minister of  the Libyan Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj signed a memorandum of understanding to mitigate the flux of illegal migrants from the Libyan costs to Italy whereby the Italian government committed to pledge training, equipment and financial aid to support the UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli. These resources had to be implemented by the Libyan administration to exercise a better control on the flux of migrants, preventing them from reaching the Italian border.

Several factors have affected Italy’s decision to take a harder line in dealing with clandestine immigration.  In 2016, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded more than 175,200 arrivals to Italy by sea from North Africa, most from Libya. In dealing with these significant numbers, Italy can less and less count on more prosperous European Nations to welcome a part of the refugees. Countries like Austria, Switzerland and France are in fact becoming more aggressive with migrants checks at the Italian borders and most of the asylum seekers remain stuck in Italy for years, when they are not directly sent back.

The defensive character of recent migration policies in European countries represents the most dangerous symptom of a generalized tendency to outsource the responsibility of the problem on third parties. This happens because the flow of migrants to the European borders is considered to be a European bureaucratic problem, before being a humanitarian crisis. The never- ending buck-passing among European countries has eventually returned the responsibility of the problem to the Libyan governmental authorities, but little attention has been given to what keeping or returning asylum seekers to Libya actually means for these people.

According to the Washington Post, abuse of migrants is becoming systematic in Libya. The International Organization for Migration estimated in September that about 770,000 migrants and asylum seekers were in Libya, of whom 4,000 to 7,000  held in detention facilities operated by the Department of Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). Libya represents the biggest jumping-off point for asylum seekers trying to reach Europe. Nonetheless, those who make it to Italy are a small and very lucky minority that have managed to collect enough money to avoid the trafficking operated by armed militias and smugglers groups. Nowadays, human trafficking of migrants is a multi-billion dollars business, involving countless militias and influential tribes in Libya.

Before arriving in Libya, groups of aspirant refugees spend weeks or even months in the desert, travelling in inhumane conditions and physically abused by smugglers that lead the journey. A small portion of migrants manages to collect the money to pay for a spot on a boat to Italy, and an even smaller portion completes the journey without being stopped by the Libyan coast guard. Eventually, most of them will end up in one of the Libyan centres operated by the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM).

The DCIM currently runs 24 detention facilities, but it is well-known that armed groups also hold migrants in an unknown number of unofficial detention centres. According to the International Organization for Migration, 20,000 refugees and migrants are held by criminal gangs in irregular detention centres in Libya whereby growing numbers of migrants are traded in slave markets before being held for ransom, forced labour or sexual exploitation.

The Zawiyah facility, also known as al-Nasr detention centre, was set up by the al-Nasr Brigade: an armed group involved in oil and human smuggling. According to the Washington Post, former prisoners of the centre have declared that people are usually bought for between $200 and $500 and held for two or three months on average until their family manage to send them money to get out, or they die for the unbearable living conditions. Furthermore, in both legal and illegal detention centres, women and children do not receive any preferential treatment and are often the targets of sexual and physical abuse by both guards and other prisoners.

The dramatic situations of migrants in Libya inevitably raises questions about European agreements to pay the North African country to stem the flow of immigrants into European borders. International NGOs, such as Emergency and Human Rights Watch have hardly criticized this attitude, accusing the European Countries of circumnavigating the problem and returning it to Libyan governmental authorities, which remain among the most unstable and precarious in the MENA region. Arguably, EU migration policies should start treating the refugee emergency as a real humanitarian crisis, finding solutions, which would involve each member state, in order to prevent singular national legislation to pass the buck to third parties.

Benedetta Zocchi