Following Nato’s toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has become the main gateway for migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East attempting to get to Europe. Having created a lawless space replete with arms and trigger-happy militias, European leaders face a difficult task trying to turn back the tide. Hawwa Adam looks back at six years of a worsening crisis
A few months after the Nato-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in February 2011, reports went round the world of a humanitarian crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a rocky outcrop in the Mediterranean that had become inundated with people fleeing the war in Libya.
Closer to Africa than Europe, Lampedusa had been a target for economic migrants for some time following tighter security at other European entry points, particularly the Morocco to Spain route. In 2009, in response to Italian concerns, Gaddafi agreed to tighten up security along his country’s 1,400km coastline in return for Italian patrol boats and a radar system to monitor Libya’s desert borders. Many of those caught trying to leave the country were detained and the number of migrants arriving in Lampedusa virtually dried up. The conflict in Libya meant that this deal was now in shreds. Boatload after boatload began to brave the perilous 300k journey across the Med until at one point refugees on the island outnumbered its population of 5,000.
“In just one 72 hour period, 1,200 refugees landed here,” Tomaso della Longa, spokesperson for Lampedusa’s 24-strong Italian Red Cross station, told me when I visited the island in April that year. “At its peak there were up to 7,000. It was an impossible situation.”
Many drowned on the way as their rickety, overloaded boats capsized in rough seas. On the day I arrived in Lampedusa, the Italian press was full of the horrifying news that more than 250 people, including women and children, had perished in the early hours of the morning after their boat capsized in rough seas about 50km from the island.
An Italian patrol boat and a fishing boat later rescued 50 people but waves four metres high hampered the operation. “My 24-year-old girlfriend died, and I lost my friend who was travelling with us,” said Peter Hougot, 29, from Cameroon from a bed in Lampedusa’s only clinic. Two Eritrean women who had been among those rescued – one was pregnant, the other widowed by the shipwreck – were later flown to the Sicilian capital Palermo for treatment.
As I explored the island, it was easy to see the evidence of earlier disasters from the shoreline as wreckage bobbed up and down in the deceptively calm waters. Then I spotted a boat being escorted into Lampedusa port by the coastguard. On board were 243 men, women and babes in arms and it seemed like a miracle that their combined weight alone had not sunk the wooden vessel as it moved low through the waters.
Having been at sea for three days with limited food and water they were a forlorn and sorry sight, and a few had to be carried away on stretchers by the Italian Red Cross. Among them were Nigerians, Ivorians, Sudanese, Eritreans and Bangladeshis who had taken advantage of the plentiful jobs in Libya, which until then had the highest standard of living per capita in Africa.
Many like Osez Joseph from Warri in southeastern Nigeria had fled from the port city of Misurata that had been devastated by Nato airstrikes and armed Predator drones. Joseph worked there as a painter for two years and he reckoned it was far safer to risk the open seas than stay behind. “If I had stayed I would have probably been killed,” he said standing unsteadily on the quayside, dazed but remarkably calm.
Having managed to make landfall his luck continued as the Italian authorities, pressured to clear the island of the thousands of refugees who had been forced to sleep rough on the beaches and clifftops in the weeks before, rolled out an action plan that saw all the boat people being swiftly evacuated by plane to refugee camps in Sicily.
Six months later, Joseph would ring me to say that after being taught Italian and given ‘stay’ papers as an asylum seeker he had been transferred to a hostel in Rome and was now looking for work. His ultimate plan was to save money and travel to the UK, where he had relatives.
At the time, the “tsunami humano” was thought to be as bad as it could get, an unfortunate fall out from a brief war that could be sorted out with a well planned evacuation and settlement programme. It proved to be anything but as the folly of Nato’s intervention quickly became clear. With Gaddafi gone, Libya has become one of the most dangerous places on the planet where rival militias fight against a government that is only nominally in control. The low level civil war has caused a humanitarian crisis, with a half million Libyans displaced, and a breakdown in the economy and the judicial system.
Amid an atmosphere of lawlessness, where practically every young man has a gun, foreign nationals in particular have become the targets of armed gangs who double up as people smugglers, charging anywhere from $750 to $3,500 apiece for a place on a boat to Italy. In most cases the vessels are unseaworthy and overloaded. The smugglers provide barely enough fuel to make it to international waters, and then abandon the boats and their passengers to their fate.
Neighbouring countries have imposed more stringent entry requirements to prevent the anarchy in Libya from spilling over, leaving foreigners trapped there with no alternative but to escape by sea.
The situation has been aggravated by the emergence of the country’s very own branch of Islamic State. Its televised beheading of 21 Coptic Christian construction workers from Egypt two years ago was an indication of its ruthlessness as it attempted to establish a caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean.
A report by Amnesty International in 2015 revealed how foreign nationals in Libya were subject to routine kidnappings, rape, beatings and torture. “It was not the police [who kidnapped me]. Anyone is the police in Libya. They all have arms,” said Ibrahim from Gambia, one of the 70 people interviewed for Libya is full of cruelty.
It described how most migrants are handed over to criminal gangs as soon as they enter Libya at the country’s southern borders or in major transit cities. At times, the smugglers themselves hold the migrants and refugees in remote areas in the desert forcing them to call their families to pay a ransom.
Such is the anarchy in Libya that abuse also takes place in government-run detention centres with impunity. Two women who were eventually released from one reported being beaten, raped and sexually assaulted by male guards.
Racism and anti-Christian sentiment fuel the violence. “Libya is full of cruelty,” said a Nigerian who used to work at a carwash. “It is not hospitable to foreigners, especially to black men. They see us as slaves. Area boys would come to molest and harass me in my house. They would beat me up.
“Any Libyan boss will ask you if you are Muslim or Christian. If you say you are Christian, then you are in trouble.”
The fall out from the civil war in Syria has created an even bigger refugee crisis. At one point, an estimated one million people fleeing Syria attempted to enter Europe by crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, making up 87 percent of those who crossed the waters into Europe.
Claiming its governments were unable to cope with the exodus, the EU struck a deal with Turkey last year agreeing that every person arriving irregularly in Turkey en route for the Greek islands would be turned back. This dramatically reduced the numbers of asylum-seekers, many of whom decided to head the other way to Libya.
Today, Libya has become the major gateway to Europe for one of the largest flows of migrants and refugees in history. They hail from more than 12 countries across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia including Algeria, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, Kenya, the Sudan region, Eritrea, Nigeria, Syria and Saudi Arabia. West and East Africans tend to be so-called economic migrants, while those from Somalia are fleeing continued unrest resulting from two decades of civil war and an Islamist insurgency led by al-Shabaab. The Eritreans, alongside Nigerians and Somalians among the largest group of arrivals, say they are trying to escape military conscription.
Keeping them out
It is estimated that since 2013, migration from Libya to Europe has quadrupled. “Libya is easier because it’s basically in a civil war, smugglers do what they want and police can’t stop them,” Gabriele Del Grande, author of the blog Fortress Europe, said. “And you can’t really coordinate with a non-existing government.”
In April the former head of the British embassy in Benghazi, Joe Walker-Cousins, warned that as many as one million migrants were already on their way to Libya. He said: “My informants in the area tell me there are potentially one million migrants, if not more, already coming up through the pipeline from central Africa and the Horn of Africa.”
According to its June figures, the International Organisation for Migration says about 1,650 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, and that of the 71,029 migrants and refugees who have entered Europe by sea, 80 per cent arrived in Italy and half were women and children.
The drownings have become so regular that they are no longer front page news. In mid-May two boats capsized in a 24-hour period between Libya and Italy, possibly leaving scores of refugees dead, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
Barbara Molinario, of the UNHCR’s Italian branch, said the large numbers on board hampered rescue operations. “Usually nobody really knows the exact number of people on a boat like that [until you talk to the survivors],”she told Al Jazeera.
The Italian coastguard had released images of a wreck the day before in which at least five people died when the boat went over some 18 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The blue fishing vessel, its deck heaving with people, capsized when passengers rushed to one side after spotting a rescue ship. They managed to call for help using a mobile phone. The navy said 562 people had been pulled to safety. In a second operation that day another 108 refugees were rescued from their dilapidated vessel.
“It takes at least three days from Libya to Italy and many more from Egypt. These are very dangerous routes and accidents are just waiting to happen,” Molinaro added.
“Our position is that people who are forced to flee and cannot return home need to be given a safe means to get to Europe and ask for protection. If they are forced to risk their lives and turn to smugglers, then this is what’s going to happen.”
Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, has rebuked the international community for standing by and watching Libya “descend into chaos” since the 2011 NATO military campaign ended, “effectively allowing militias and armed groups to run amok”.
“World leaders have a responsibility and must be prepared to face the consequences, which include greater levels of refugees and migrants fleeing conflict and rampant abuse in Libya. Asylum-seekers and migrants are among the most vulnerable people in Libya and their plight must not be ignored,” he said.
Unfortunately, his words are likely to have fallen on deaf ears. Western leaders have increasingly come to regard migrants as the agents of their own misfortune who would be better off staying where they are. They certainly see no connection between the countries they have interfered in and the refugee crisis.
During the first five months of 2015, European and NGO search and rescue operations were suspended amid claims they simply encourage more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing. As a result, 1,800 people drowned. The deaths prompted fresh calls for Europe to reinstate full-scale search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Pope Francis, an outspoken advocate for greater European-wide participation in rescue efforts, reiterated his call for action during one of his Sunday masses. “They are men and women like us – our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” he said at the time.
The unspoken sentiment that migrants, however heartfelt their plight, are also a potential irritant, even a threat, runs through most official responses to the refugee crisis. In February EU leaders met in Malta in talks about further efforts to stop boat migration in the central Mediterranean, amid calls for a deal similar to the one struck between EU and Turkey last year. Those present were keen to respond to popular pressure at home for tougher immigration controls and agreed that Libya’s “unity” government – backed by the UN but opposed by two rival governments – would receive $215m to reinforce its coastguard and, more controversially, to set up refugee camps in southern Libya where people trying to reach Europe could be held and have their asylum claims processed.
Aid and human rights groups accused the EU of abandoning humanitarian values and misrepresenting conditions in Libya, where the UN-backed government of Fayez Seraj is not fully in control of the country. Médecins Sans Frontières, said: “Libya is not a safe place and blocking people in the country or returning them to Libya makes a mockery of the EU’s so-called fundamental values of human dignity and rule of law.”
Lawyers for Justice in Libya chief Elm Saudi added: “It is wrong for the EU to enter into an agreement with a country that has no concept of asylum and no refugee protection. The EU knows that torture, rape and killing occur in these camps.”
However, in a severe blow to the deal, Libya rejected a separate Italian-Libyan memorandum of understanding that was intended to allow Italy to train the Libyan coastguard to take a more active role by boarding ships and sending back refugees spotted in Libyan coastal waters. A document released by the justice ministry in Tripoli did not give a reason for the move, but the rival parliament declared the agreement to be “null and void”, saying the UN-backed government had “no legal status in the Libyan state”.
Although an appeal is being launched against the court ruling, the judgment has left the main thrust of the EU’s migrants policy in limbo. It is now seeking ways of speeding up asylum processing in Italy, and to offer financial incentives to countries such as Nigeria to take back rejected asylum claimants. Nigeria would also be given a quota of visas for its workers to come to Europe. The number of Nigerians reaching Italy via Libya is said to have risen from 9,000 in 2014 to 37,550 in 2016. But many African countries are reluctant to prevent the flow of migrants to Europe partly due to the vast remittances migrants send back to their countries.
Again, there are hints that the search and rescue operations should be stopped. In April, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU border agency, Frontex, called for them to be “re-evaluated” and accused NGOs of ineffectively cooperating with security agencies against human traffickers. “We must avoid supporting the business of criminal networks and traffickers in Libya through European vessels picking up migrants ever closer to the Libyan coast,” he told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper.
“This leads traffickers to force even more migrants on to unseaworthy boats with insufficient water and fuel than in previous years.”
Médecins Sans Frontières refuted the charges, saying they were “extremely serious and damaging”.
“What is the alternative but to let even more people die?” said the organisation’s Aurélie Ponthieu
“We are not encouraging the smugglers, but it is not our job to act as a law enforcement agency … [and] not our job to co-operate with law enforcement agencies about the smugglers.”
Also speaking to Die Welt, the new president of the European parliament, Antonio Tajani, proposed the EU should set up reception centres for asylum seekers in Libya, taking over the role currently played by smugglers and the state. Tajani warned that unless Europe acted now 20 million African people would come to Europe over the next few years.
In Europe, terrorist attacks and austerity measures that have stretched welfare provision to breaking point have hardened hearts against refugees, and further fuelled racism. Early in June came reports of how a fascist anti-immigration youth group planned to block boats coming from Libya. Génération Identitaire activists managed to raise nearly $100,000 in less than three weeks through an anonymous crowd funding campaign to pay for the vessels to ply the seas in search of what it calls “illegal immigrants”.
“It’s a mission to rescue Europe by stopping illegal immigration. We want to get our crew, equip a boat and set sail to chase down these enemies of Europe,” it said in a statement in a video posted on the group’s Facebook page in May, which had more than 246,000 views.
Later, the group hired a boat for a trial run, disrupting a search-and-rescue vessel run by SOS Méditerranée as it left the Sicilian port of Catania. They claimed they had slowed the NGO ship until the Italian coastguard intervened. On board was the Canadian far-right journalist Lauren Southern, who has 278,000 Twitter followers, suggesting an international dimension to the campaign.
The threat from the far right both alarms and infuriates charities operating in the Mediterranean. One senior official, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Observer newspaper in London that politicians had helped create a climate where supporters of the far right felt emboldened to act in such a way.
“When the British government and its European counterparts talk about ‘swarms’ of migrants, or perpetuate the myth that rescue operations are a ‘pull factor’ or a ‘taxi service’, that gives fuel to extreme groups such as this. The simple reality is that without rescue operations many more would drown, but people would still attempt the crossing,” he said.