Migration policy in Libya: Where hope is dying

The country is drowning into chaos, the traffickers use it to smuggle migrants and refugees to Europe. No good climate for the EU to find partners.

Libyan Red Crescent members carry a deceased migrants body away from the beach Foto: dpa

Each of the 241 passengers on the flight of Libyan Airways received a personal hygiene kit, underwear, a shirt, jogging suit and shoes. All sponsored by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The 241 refugees from Nigeria, who entered the Airbus A330 in August, were on their way home. They had abandoned their dream of Europe, had broken the Libyan reality and would rather return to the uncertainty of their homeland.

Each of their fates is a reminder of how vulnerable migrants are in Libya: one was attacked, robbed and shot. A twenty-year-old was stopped on the sea, on his way to Europe, and thrown into jail. The newspaper Libya Herald said she „I never thought that Libya could be worse than at home. I am glad to be able to return again. „What they mean by this are the notorious detainment centers, prisons where migrants are imprisoned to extort money from them. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch have gathered dozens of testimonies of torture or ill-treatment committed by Libyan guards to the inmates.

In fact, anyone who has been illegally or illegally immigrated to Libya is regarded as a criminal who can be detained for deportation indefinitely, without judicial or legal assistance. Asylum law has not yet been anchored in Libyan law; deportations are carried out arbitrarily and without hearing.

A total of 581 Nigerians have carried the IOM 2016 on these voluntary return flights to their homeland. 3,000 migrants from Niger and others from Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Conakry, Ghana, Sudan and the Gambia. A small fraction, compared to the 170,000 refugees who were sent to Italy by December 2016, while more than 3,000 people drowned on the same escape route. However, official repatriation agreements do not exist in Libya – after all, the country is in chaos: more than 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) are among the UN refugee aid UNHCR, most of them due to years of fighting around the cities of Bengazi and Sirte.

Young Transit

The absence of state control in Libya has meant that most refugees are opting for the risky crossing over the Mediterranean to Europe in the face of the EU-Turkey Agreement. The EU is therefore trying to implement various measures in Libya to close this route. But no one knows exactly how much refugees or migrants are waiting for the crossing. While the European border protection agency Frontex suspects one million volunteers, serious estimates go from half. But Libya has only recently changed to a transit country from a receiving country in which Bangladeshis, Filipinos and inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa found work. In 2009, before the fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, 2.5 million migrants lived there. Even in 2013, when the country had long since become unstable, it still accounted for about 1.7 million.

The journey across the Mediterranean was not unusual for a long time. In the times of the Gaddafi regime, about 40,000 people traveled across the Mediterranean to Europe every year. The crucial difference: since the Syrian conflict has broken out, the crises in West Africa and the Horn of Africa have been added.

For the refugees, two routes to Libya are crucial, which vary according to the political constellation. Migrants from West Africa, such as Nigeria or Niger, often travel through the desert town of Sebha in the south-west of Libya towards the coast. Migrants from Eritrea or Sudan themselves travel via Khartoum via the Goldgräbercamps around the city of Dongola to Libya.

Once they have crossed the border, they are a game ball in local power struggles: in the south of Libya between the Tebu and Tuareg tribes. Whoever has entrusted himself to the wrong smugglers is captured by the tribes and only released for a high ransom. In the Libyan power vacuum, where every city and every quarter is its own government, the migrants are regarded as a welcome source of income.

Threatened by IS

In the south, this has led to the migrants and their smugglers avoid the city of Kufra because of the fighting and prefer to travel around the world. In the north, on the other hand, the city of Ajdabiya was long considered the logistical center of the smugglers, in order to spread the migrants to the different sites on the coast. Even the policeman of the city was involved in the smuggling, as a refugee tells: „He is 50 or 60 years old. He is very cruel. „The fact that Ajdabiya has been abandoned as a center is representative of the dynamism of the conflict in Libya: the two great power poles of the country, the Haftar government in the East, and the unity government supported by the international community West fought the Islamic state, which had settled in Sirte and Bengasi. The latter, on the other hand, tried to expand towards the capital of Tripoli. Thus, the IS had direct access to the migrant routes.

In fact, the Islamists captured hundreds of them and enslaved or murdered them. Meanwhile, Bani Walid, the oasis city in the west, is the new center of the smugglers, as the city is far from the front line between the government in the east and the west. And with the crucial difference that it takes only hours from here to bring the migrants to the depositories Subratha and Zawiyah on the coast.The few, still functioning state organs, which could act against the smugglers, are hopelessly overstrained. Anyone who visits Captain Ashraf, one of the senior officers of the Libyan coast guard in Tripoli, knows why he fails in the fight against a million-strong industry: he has only six inflatable boats available. And „We control only two coastal sections“ – of six. What happens in the others, he does not know, there are competing groups.

Partner Italy

Under Gaddafi's regime, it looked different: he sent immigrants from southern African countries to Libya – or looked beyond illegal border crossings. His followers deserved their transport, and the country's economy could use cheap labor. Libya was booming, many migrants wanted to find jobs there. At the same time, Gaddafi used the migrants to threaten Europe with them. „Should Europe be black?“ Was a phrase that he emitted gloomily to extort money.After a long period of isolation of Libya as a terrorist state, Gaddafi returned to the international political scene with these arguments. In 2000, he signed an anti-terrorist and anti-immigration agreement with his primary contact person Italy, and in 2008 even a friendship contract. This led to joint patrols on the Mediterranean, the establishment of electronic control instruments on Libya's southern border by Italian companies and Italian assistance in dialogue with the EU. From 2009, Libya even accepted the admission of refugees to the Libyan coast by pushing back Italian mariners.

This policy, however, was stopped after violent international criticism because it violated the law. In the process „Hirsi vs. Italy „at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, there were about 200 people who had been deported to Libya and from there to their homelands – including Eritrean claimant Jamaa Hirsi. In 2012, the Court of First Instance came to the conclusion that Italy had thus infringed the European Agreement on Human Rights. But at that time the Court had already been overtaken by the story. Gaddafi was no longer in power, the country was sinking in chaos, tens of thousands of foreigners fled to Algeria – or even to Europe – for fear of pogroms.

New Approaches

Anyone who wants to pursue migration policy in Libya now no longer has to rely on a single actor like Gaddafi, who called for 120 million of the EU's role as EU border guards, but a barely manageable number of groups. Officially, the fight against smuggling is under the responsibility of the Department for the Control of Irregular Migration (DCIM), which is – again officially – under the Libyan Ministry of the Interior. In fact, the local militia are the ones who hunt migrants and lock into prisons to make money with them. The single government, which has been governed by Tripoli since March, under Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj has so far failed to bring the 24 country-wide prisons under their control. The EU estimates that a total of 7 per cent of all migrants are held there.

The EU is slowly coming to the conclusion that its previous policy on Libya has failed. In the Communication to Parliament and other bodies on a new partnership framework with third countries, the European Commission formulates five pillars: financial support of € 100 million for projects; Protection of refugees already in Libya; GNA Government aid to government and administration; Technical assistance and security sector reform for police, criminal justice and border management. The EU is focusing on the following: EUBAM, the Libyan Border Security Mission, which has existed since 2013.

Within the framework of the EU's Common Security and Defense Policy, this mission should work together with Libyan authorities to improve border management. This included the establishment of inter-ministerial working groups, the training of coastal units and technical equipment. Unfortunately, due to the unstable situation, the mission had to move to Tunisia as early as 2014 – in so great a hurry that, according to the UN sanctions committee, weapons were left in Tripoli. „They wanted to train us on much too complicated technical equipment,“ grumbled a border guards, who checked at the airport Tripoli entrants. Only the most handy training units for the Libyan coast guard, organized by the 17 remaining EUBAM members, he praises. The learned boat knot and fuse sweatboxes had been top. „The only ones who had it, they were themselves. They earned good money,“ he accuses EUBAM.

In fact, the financial package for the mission is pleasantly padded. EUBAM Libya has just been relaunched by the EU, with a total budget of 17 million euros, which must last until August 2017. They are to support Libyan institutions in the fields of criminal justice, migration, border security and counter-terrorism. The Coast Guard, Captain Ashraf, said: „The Europeans have been promising us financial support since October 2015“. He has never seen any. Obviously the EU has a problem with the unstable situation in the country, it only wants to support state institutions. But they are blurred in the chaos of the Libyan power games.

Military in the Mediterranean

Nevertheless, the European border protection agency Frontex seems to have built up a stand in Libya: the agency is cooperating with Libyan border guards in the multilateral working group AFIC (Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community) and collecting information there. Just as in 2007, when she was on a mission to Libya with Gaddafi's border guards because of common defense against the migrants.

One thing is certain: Europe's security policymakers have enough plans for Libya in the drawer. From a training mission for Libyan soldiers to the deployment of the EUROGENDFOR EU policing group, which could be used as a stabilizing instrument such as in Bosnia or Afghanistan. The most effective instrument, however, seems to be the EU in the naval operation „EUNavfor Med Sophia“, in which a European military shipping association is supposed to prevent the sluicing of people across the Mediterranean. In January 2016 Enrico Credendino, Commander of the Operation, told the EU Commission that he had scared the smugglers with his 16 ships and airplanes, and had been able to arrest 46 smugglers and to destroy 67 boats. How many millions that had cost him, he did not say.

The EU, in mid-2016, told Operation Sophia to do more: to train the Libyan coast guard and to prevent the illegal transport of weapons. This could contribute to a more stable Libya, according to the officially formulated hope. Until then, the Libyan coast guard has to deal with life buoys, rescue buoys, torches and other equipment, which was handed over by the German and the Dutch ambassadors for Libya at the end of November. The 650 refugees in the Tariq al-Matar prison also received something: clothes and hygiene kits. A drop on the rocks – nevertheless, the Libyan government is resisting the demands of the EU countries Austria and Hungary to return refugees to Libya or even to build up new refugee camps in the country.

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