Hundreds of refugees from Libya line up for food at a transit camp near the Tunisia-Libya border.

by Jose Ovalle
Contributing Writer

Of the current approximate half a million refugees in Libya, 60% are from Sub-Saharan countries, 32% from North African nations, and 7% from Eastern and Middle Eastern countries. Most are trying to flee from economic or political instability towards Europe. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) found that human traffickers, militias, Libyan Coast guard, police, and other groups have worked with Libyan officials to bring migrants into detention centers owned by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). In 2017 alone, 20,000 migrants were brought into detention centers, where their rights are routinely violated. Migrants have no access to legal resources in these centers, which are often run by armed militias. The detention centers have been described as “generally inhumane, falling far short of international human rights standards.” But how did the situation get this bad, and how can it be resolved?

The EU shares a portion of the blame for the state of migrants in Libya. In 2017, the EU and the Libyan government brokered the “Memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the fields of development, the fight against illegal immigration, human trafficking and fuel smuggling and on reinforcing the security of borders between the State of Libya and the Italian Republic” in order to stem the flow of refugees that were using Libya as a gateway to Europe during the 2016 refugee crisis. The agreement between parties gave millions of euros to the Libyan coast guard to capture seafaring refugees en route to Europe in order to bring them back to Libya. It also recognized the authority of the DCIM detention centers, where the migrants are sent to after returning, while failing to recognize the need for legal representation. Even the requirement of observation by human rights organization or UN bodies is ignored. According to Anja Palm, a researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, what is most worrisome about the memorandum is that it “seem[s] to voluntarily ignore all dissimilarity in the legal status of people on the move, assimilating all of them in the undifferentiated category of illegal migrants.” This willful ignorance of distinctions among migrants criminalizes all forms of migration rather than distinguishing circumstances that would normally qualify certain individuals or families for refugee status.

As a result, the conditions are deplorable. Eye witness accounts speak of “going days without food and drinking toilet water to survive” and how “infected detainees are locked with others in a dark room and [had] been repeatedly left without tuberculosis medication.” Even more shocking, open air slave auctions have been documented in the country. Multiple eye witness accounts report migrants being sold as slaves in markets, with some accusing the DCIM centers themselves of being home to the slave auctions. Recently, over 50 non-profit organizations have signed an open letter calling on Europe to take stock of the rampant loss of life and dignity in Libya, stating, “EU leaders have allowed themselves to become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes.” The European Union is an accomplice to the human rights violations that have been enumerated.

Fleeing Death in Libya

The harm being done to human lives is egregious. Yet, the European Union has valid reasons to seek ways to reduce immigration levels. With the threat of migrants coming into Europe often being blown out of proportion in general media, populists and far-right politicians have capitalized on the flow of migrants into Europe. More liberal governments have been toppled by far right governments in countries such as Italy, Hungary, and Poland by stoking fears around mass immigration. Populist politicians, such as Austria’s Herbert Kickl, are openly calling for camps that “concentrate people in the asylum process in one place,” evoking a 1930’s mentality towards “undesirables.” According to Pew Research Center, a majority of Europeans support taking in refugees, yet disapprove of EU policies towards immigration. In addition, a 2017 study conducted by Pew Research shows that Europeans want their national governments, not the Union, to craft policy concerning refugees. Therefore, while it might be morally advisable, open-border policies will drive people further into the arms of populists.

So, what can be done? Currently, persons fleeing towards Europe are being turned around in the Mediterranean and sent back to Libya regardless of whether or not they have valid reasons for fleeing their country of origin. When they get to Libya, individuals are usually stripped of their documents and put in detainment camps. Legalizing migration channels would begin to stabilize the migration situation by incentivizing refugees against illegally crossing, establishing readmission agreements with countries of origin, and debilitating the smuggling apparatus in place. The European Union should establish migration agreements with countries that have seen a large number of their citizens flee to Europe. This can be done on a lottery basis with any person seeking entrance being eligible to enroll, provided they have not previously tried to illegally enter. If they have previously tried to illegally enter, they would be barred from joining the lottery process for a certain number of years. The imposition of a temporary exclusion from the Visa lottery would disincentivize many people from trying to enter illegally, while not punishing those who have already tried to do so for the rest of their lives.

These types of agreements are called Mobility Partnerships, and according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, “So far, only Tunisia and Morocco among North African countries have mobility partnerships with the EU. No mobility partnership has been signed with any sub-Saharan countries.” As mobility partnerships are a thorny issue, open debates should take place regarding what percentage should be given visas. Meanwhile, this policy could solve pressing issues. People are entering whether or not there are migration channels in place. Migrants brave the brutal conditions that smugglers impose on them without guarantee of success because there is no other way to do it. Allowing some migrants to enter through a lottery system would offer another option. Furthermore, the outcome of fewer people using smuggling routes would raise the price that smugglers demand for the journey. This would prevent those who would have deemed the previous fare acceptable and paid it from paying the new fare.

In addition, the EU should establish Readmission Agreements which are agreements between parties that work to “facilitate the return of people residing irregularly in a country to their country of origin or to a country of transit.” These agreements are a necessary aspect of mobility partnerships. If the EU allows for a certain percentage of a nation’s citizens to receive visas, those nations must accept those who have sought to enter into Europe unlawfully back into their countries. This benefits the EU, as those who are trying to enter illegally are sent back to their home countries. Readmission agreements also benefit nations that agree to it, as their citizens can enter the Visa lottery in return.

With this framework set in place, order can begin to be created and migrants can be protected. The European Union faces a dire need to act on this matter. The EU has been accused of knowingly allowing the abuse of migrants to happen. The memorandum that was signed between the parties was an act of allowing willful ignorance taking place in order to decrease the influx of migrants. Amnesty International testified that “no independent monitoring or accountability mechanism has been established either by Italy or by the EU to ensure that the resources provided to the Libyan authorities…are not contributing to human rights violations and abuses.” If the European Union does not want to see itself as complicit, it should take hardline action against Libyan policies and ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected. To do nothing in the face of such freely available information would be to directly participate in the torture, slave trading, and murder of innocent people.

Images by
United Nations Photo

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