Libya's immigration crisis never ended

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has relegated developed crises to the background
Archival photograph of rescued migrants sitting next to a Coast Guard boat in the city of Khoms, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Tripoli, Libya

AP/HAZEM AHMED  -   Archival photograph of rescued migrants sitting next to a Coast Guard boat in the city of Khoms, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Tripoli, Libya

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has relegated crises to the background.

In this scenario, one of the most vulnerable groups to the COVID-19, and one that was already so before it began, is that of migrants, for various reasons: the lack of rights, the legal vacuum in which they often find themselves, the unhealthy conditions in which they live, or their political use by the world's great powers, among others.

This case is especially shocking in Libya, where a bloody civil war since 2011 has resulted in a failed state, whose territory is being disputed by the Government of National Unity (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, sponsored by the UN and supported by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; and by the National Liberation Army (LNA), commanded by Marshal Khalifa Haftar and supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and France. In between the sides are the "warlords", who control portions of Libyan soil, and the mafias and insurgent and extremist groups, who take advantage of the dismemberment of the country. 

In 2016, at the height of civil strife, 181,400 people fled from Libya - and other countries like Algeria and Tunisia - via the central Mediterranean route to Europe, mainly Italy, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). In 2017, there were 119,400, and in 2018, just 23,400. In the same year, departures from Libya fell by 87% compared to the same period last year. The reason? The signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Italian Government - with Matteo Salvini as Minister of the Interior - and the Libyan Government, in which the former committed itself with technical and technological means to support the Libyan Armed Forces in controlling the flow of migrants who wanted to reach the community's coasts. During this period, Tripoli has received more than $100 million from Rome and the EU Trust Fund for Africa for training, vessels and equipment. It is worth mentioning here that the agreement was extended in February this year until 2023. 

En esta foto de archivo tomada el 11 de abril de 2016, los migrantes ilegales están sentados en el muelle del puerto de la capital libia, Trípoli
AFP/MAHMUD TURKEY - In this archive photo taken on 11 April 2016, illegal migrants are sitting on the quay in the port of the Libyan capital, Tripoli

This put the Libyan Coast Guard in charge of managing flows in the central Mediterranean, which has received numerous complaints from NGOs - and even the UN itself - for committing serious violations of migrants' human rights in detention centres on Libyan territory. Furthermore, the cessation of the European Union's Operation EUNAVFOR MED Sophia in February this year, which had been dedicated to fighting against the trafficking of migrants since 2015, and its replacement by the Irini mission, which was intended solely to ensure the arms embargo on the country, has facilitated the activities of criminal gangs in this area. And with the appearance of the coronavirus in March, their illicit operations had been silenced on the international agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

On 25 May, the news broke: some 400 migrants - two of them dead - had been sent back to Libya, considered an "unsafe port" by the EU itself and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in the last 48 hours. The large group was subsequently transferred to the Al-Nasser detention centre in Zawiya, 45 kilometres from the capital, whose deplorable state has also been criticised by human rights organisations. "For anyone imprisoned in Al-Nasser, forced labour is the only way refugees can pay for their freedom," denounced analyst Nancy Porsia, quoting a source at TRT World. The centre is also run by the Abu Hamyra tribe, which includes Abdurahman al-Milad Aka Bija, the commander of the coast guard in Zawiya and, according to the publication, "the undisputed leader of human trafficking".

IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli expressed concern at the time: "Departures from Libya have increased, which is particularly worrying given the sharp decline in search and rescue capacity," she said. This has been due to the disruption of the activities of private organizations in the Mediterranean by the pandemic, the closure of borders, the suspension of many flights and the imposition of restrictions on international travel, among other factors.

Esta foto de archivo del 24 de junio de 2018, publicada por la Guardia Costera de Libia, muestra a los migrantes en un barco interceptado cerca de la ciudad de Gohneima, al este de la capital, Trípoli, Libia
PHOTO/AP - This archive photo from June 24, 2018, published by the Libyan Coast Guard, shows migrants on an intercepted boat near the city of Gohneima, east of the capital, Tripoli, Libya

On 28 May, another 211 migrants were returned to the North African country by the Coast Guard. "While all efforts to save lives are immensely important and should be recognized, we remind states and ship captains that people rescued at sea should be brought to a safe port," Msehli wrote on his Twitter account.

On the same day, another heinous crime was known to have been committed: 30 migrants, 26 of them from Bangladesh and four Africans, were killed in a gunfight involving an arms dealer. The tragedy occurred in a smuggling warehouse in Mezda, near the city of Gharyan, south-west of Tripoli, where a group of migrants was being held. Eleven of them, who were seriously injured, were taken to Zintan hospital, according to IOM. As later noted by the Foreign Ministry of the Asian country concerned, the migrants were abducted while crossing the desert from Benghazi in search of work. They were then "inhumanly tortured for ransom. At some point in their ordeal, the captives killed the main kidnapper. In retaliation, the relatives of the militia leader shot them indiscriminately," Bangladeshi authorities revealed. At this point, it is worth mentioning the testimony of one of the survivors of the attack: "I came to Libya for work, but I was kidnapped, detained and tortured for months. Now I have lost part of my hand and I don't know how I will go back to work," says Federico Soda, head of the IOM mission in the North African country.

In June, the situation became even worse. From 29 May to 7 June, in just 10 days, at least 337 migrants who had departed from the Libyan coast arrived in Italy and Malta, while another 194 were intercepted at sea and returned to the North African country, according to the IOM. 

On 9 June, Msehli reported that 185 migrants had been returned to Libya by the coast guard the previous night. "In the midst of constant inaction, people continue to return to a cycle of abuse, abduction and enforced disappearance," he lamented. "We maintain that Libya is not a safe haven. Alternative solutions are urgently needed," Soda said.

On 13 June, the NGO Alarm Phone reported the sinking of a small wooden boat with 32 sub-Saharan migrants - from Chad, Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan - on board off the Libyan coast, not far from the port of Zawiya, 20 of whom could be saved by local fishermen. Twelve others, including two children, remain unaccounted for and are feared to have drowned. "The Coast Guard was not present and let's remember that the EU is paying them to patrol the coast and prevent people from fleeing," the organisation criticised on its Twitter profile. "New shipwreck! How many more will have died in these months without making the news? Nothing is more important than saving a life, no matter where it comes from," the director of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps, published on this social network.

Migrantes con chalecos salvavidas en un bote de goma durante una operación de rescate del barco de rescate Ocean Viking de MSF-SOS Mediterranee, frente a la costa de Libia en el mar Mediterráneo, el 18 de febrero de 2020
PHOTO/HANNAH WALLACE BOWMAN/MSF via REUTERS - Migrants wearing life jackets in a rubber dinghy during a rescue operation of the MSF-SOS Mediterranee rescue ship Ocean Viking off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea, February 18, 2020

The return of migrants to Libya also continued during this month: 120 on 17 June, 71 on 25 June, 270 on 26 June and 184 on 28 June. More than 400 in total in just ten days. 

In July, despair reached its peak. In a single day, on the 2nd, almost 300 migrants were brought back to Libyan territory, in two groups, the first with 174 people and the second with 102, including 12 women and 20 children. "How many more lives do you have to threaten or lose before action is taken? An alternative to landing in Libya is urgently needed," Msehli said in a distress call.

On 8 July, 18 more people were transferred back to the North African country by the Coast Guard after surviving a shipwreck of the boat in which seven migrants died. Four of the 18 were in critical condition and were taken to a clinic.

The European Migrant Smuggling Centre of Europol (EMSC), in its latest report published on 15 May, warns that "prolonged economic instability and sustained lack of opportunity in some African economies may trigger another wave of irregular migration to the EU in the medium term". Europe will have to prepare itself to face the crises that will follow the health crisis, including migration, which will be unstoppable. If it does not want to fail as it did in 2015, it needs to start addressing this issue in the institutions as soon as possible. And, for the moment, the only item on the agenda in Brussels is the coronavirus.