Providing legal migration venues is only solution to African migrant abuse
Accounts of modern-day slavery in Libya have shocked the European public. However, interpretation of the horrific mistreatment of black African migrants and refugees in the North African country has been largely ahistorical and decoupled from the European Union’s own migration and asylum policies, focusing instead on the lawlessness of the Libyan state.
However, the European partnership with Libya aimed at curbing the migration from sub-Saharan Africa is far from new, dating to as early as 2002 when Muammar Qaddafi used Europe’s fear of migration to reinforce his iron grip on power.
2002 also marked the year when Malta saw a spike in boat arrivals from Libya and when it began keeping records of migrant arrivals by sea. This was two years before the island’s accession to the European Union.
Most African migrants and refugees had to work illegally in Libya for a few years to save money for the last part of their dangerous journey to Europe. Apart from inhumane working conditions, they were subjected to massive human rights violations such as arbitrary detention, torture, kidnapping, robbery and sexual violence, including widespread male rape.
People who were not Muslim, did not speak Arabic and had a darker complexion were explicitly treated like slaves. This racial hierarchy was often replicated on boats heading to Malta and Lampedusa, where dark-skinned Africans were located by smugglers in the hull, while those with lighter skin would travel on the upper deck.
There is a very thin line between human smuggling, trafficking and enslavement and further sealing off the European borders resulted in higher fees demanded by smugglers for their services. This was bound to lead to grave human rights abuses in Qaddafi’s Libya, where smugglers were directly linked to the police and military, often being the very same actors, not to mention the country’s refusal to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Nevertheless, in 2004 and 2007, the EU Commission and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) carried out technical missions to Libya and recommended an expansion of Libyan border security, which was followed by bilateral Italian-Libyan agreements, notably the one in 2008 between then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Qaddafi that initiated push-back operations to degrading conditions in Libyan detention centres and prisons. The militarised Operation Sophia is a continuation of this anti-migration collaboration between Italy and Libya.
The European Union committed about $54.4 million to two control facilities in Tripoli, which was followed last month by an allocation of nearly $337.5 million for search-and-rescue centres. Offering financial support and training of the Libyan Coast Guard became an essential element of the European agenda on migration and resulted in the decline of boat arrivals at Europe’s southern borders.
Frontex, on a request from Spanish NGO Access Info Europe, disclosed materials used in its training provided to the Libyan Coast Guard. From the 20 documents that were released, only 0.5% of the content was dedicated to human rights. This is in clear contrast to European Union’s assurances that the training activities have a substantial focus on enhancing protection of and respect for human rights.
In light of this history of placing Libya at the forefront of EU border externalisation efforts, Europe’s concern at the human rights violations of migrants and refugees in the North African country seems insincere. At the fifth African Union-EU Summit, November 29-30 in Cote d’Ivoire, African and European leaders issued a statement on the migrant situation in Libya in which they condemned “such criminal acts” and expressed “firm resolve to work together for an immediate end of these criminal practices” and to ensure “the well-being of the migrants and refugees.”
The vocabulary’s focus on the notion of “criminality” suggests that what has been happening in Libya is an aberration, rather than a systematic policy with an end goal of deterring people from embarking on journeys to Europe.
The statement ends with the European Union’s vow to assist Libya in facilitating the migrants’ “voluntary repatriation to their countries of origin.” It is quite convenient wording as it portrays the actors involved in the process as those who save the displaced people from modern-day slavery. However, the maltreatment of Africans on the move would not have occurred in the first place if Libya was not the key player in the European Union’s border externalisation project.
Another outcome of the Abidjan summit was the plan to establish a joint migration task force among the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations. The task force is to work closely with Libyan authorities to “dismantle traffickers and criminal networks” and to “offer opportunities of development and stability to countries of origin and transit, tackling root causes of migration.”
Once again, the aim of the collaboration is the deterrence of African migration to Europe. This ignores evidence clearly indicating that the best solution to tackling human trafficking is providing legal migration pathways to Europe. The very limited safe and legal avenues are restricted to Syrian refugees and there are no proposals in place to facilitate mobility from Africa for work and education except a promise to enhance programmes such as Erasmus+.
In the absence of legal routes to Europe, the human rights violations, including enslavement of extremely vulnerable African migrants and refugees in Libya, will continue, while people behind the restrictive migration policies shed crocodile tears in Brussels.