Europe’s refugee policies are inadequate

Saturday 13/07/2019
A blue inflatable boat carrying 65 people, about 34 miles from the Libyan coast, July 5. (Sea-eye/Social Media via Reuters)
A blue inflatable boat carrying 65 people, about 34 miles from the Libyan coast, July 5. (Sea-eye/Social Media via Reuters)

As is the case every summer, too many overcrowded boats carrying would-be migrants capsize while attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. This year has been no exception.

The tragedies continue even though, since 2015, governments in North Africa and the Middle East have, with the help of Europe, brought their shores under tighter control.

That was not the case, however, in Libya. Despite arrangements between European governments with some of Libya’s actors, would-be migrants continue to depart from the Libyan coast. An incident occurred July 4 when an inflatable boat carrying more than 80 migrants sank off the Tunisian coast after setting off from Libya. The bodies of 72 migrants have been recovered.

Europe’s strategy has been to prevent the arrival of refugees at any cost. To stem the departure of refugees from Libya, it included questionable deals with dubious militias and an unreliable coast guard. As recently written by Mathieu von Rohr in Der Spiegel, Europeans “outsourced the horrors and washed their hands of any guilt” through such deals.

He was referring to arrangements between European powers, including Italy and France, with opportunistic militias and a coast guard made up itself of militia members to intercept migrants attempting to leave Libyan shores and take them to detention centres in squalid and often dangerous conditions.

To make up for lost revenue after the cancellation of illegal journeys across the sea, traffickers and the militiamen did not hesitate to find other uses for the detained refugees. Traffickers at the sub-Saharan end of the smuggling networks have held refugees’ families for ransom.

Strict anti-migration measures in Europe, best illustrated by enforcement of tough policies in Italy since the coming to power in June 2018 of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, reduced the flow of refugees to a trickle. So far this year, the number of migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya totalled 2,790, a decrease of 83% compared to the same period in 2018 and a drop of 97% compared to 2017.

The reduction in the number of migrants could not, however, stop migrant fatalities nor hide the shortcomings of Europe’s policies.

“This year alone, just under 600 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean. The horrors of the European Union’s migration policies aren’t playing out in front of the cameras — they are unfolding in North Africa and on the high seas,” pointed out von Rohr.

When dozens of African refugees were killed July 2 in Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, it was a tragic incident waiting to happen. More than 50 refugees, caught in the crossfire of Libya’s domestic strife, were killed that night. Others who tried to flee the detention centre were shot at by local sentries.

For months, there have been indications the refugees in the centre were being exploited for military purposes. Two refugees told the Associated Press they had been forced by a local militia to maintain weapons.

Media reports stated they were most likely requisitioned to do that work by the Dhaman militia led by militant Islamist commander Bashir Khalfallah.

International actors should have seen this coming. In May the United Nations called for the evacuation of refugees who were in that kind of predicament in Tajoura. UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said on Twitter: “Unacceptable that detention centres in Tripoli are being used to store weapons & military equipment. This is making them a target for attack, putting the lives of those inside in grave danger. Violation of int’l humanitarian law and has to stop.”

Despite the noted danger, Tripoli authorities did not stop transferring refugees into the centre, UN reports said.

After the July 2 incident, UN Special Envoy on Migration in the Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel bemoaned the “blindness among European countries about the situation of migrants in Libya, which has been deteriorating for months.” Fighting only added to the risks, he said.

Even more short-sightedness marks Europe’s approach to stemming the flow of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa without addressing its underlying factors.

“I understand Europe’s strategic interests but we have to move beyond that. Have the conflicts that are spurring people to travel to Libya been resolved? There are currently 19 conflicts on the African continent,” he noted. “We have to tackle the issues upstream.”

Another part of the problem has to do with Europe’s own divisive politics. The rise of populist and nationalist movements in Europe has fuelled anti-migration trends. Europe’s policies have exposed them to accusations of bigotry and racism. Malian intellectual Aminata Traore has written that Europe’s restrictive policies stem from an “atavistic refusal to form mixed societies.”

A durable solution requires a European approach that addresses the complex issues of peace, stability and development in the Arab world and Africa. Expedient measures offer only short-lived solutions.