CW: abuse, sexual assault, drowning, death.
Last month Italian Prime Minister and former European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, took his first trip abroad since he assumed office. He chose to visit Libya, and met with Libyan president Abdel Hamid Mohamed Dbeibeh to discuss the countries’ economic ties and cooperation on tackling irregular immigration. During his visit, Draghi congratulated the Libyan government on their work over recent years in stemming the movement of migrants who leave Libya’s coast in hope of finding refuge in Europe.
The truth is, and as many investigations have shown, Libya’s ‘rescue missions’ out at sea often result in the transportation of people to Libyan detention camps notorious for their human rights violations.
Every year thousands of migrants leave the coast of Libya and head towards Europe – their destinations are mostly Italy, Spain or Greece. But many don’t even get the opportunity to reach shore. Out at sea, many boats become stranded or capsize, resulting in countless deaths every year. In 2020 the death toll was estimated to be a staggering 1,400. In the first two months of 2021 alone, 251 people died during these crossings. These numbers, however, are only estimates, as many people go missing. Between 2014 and 2018 alone, the bodies of 12,000 people thought to have drowned, have sadly never been found.
Migrant ships leaving the north African coast are often intercepted by either NGO rescue missions – such as MSF or Open Arms – or, in other instances, by the Libyan coast guard. In 2017, the Italian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya, a framework which outlined terms of cooperation with regard to irregular migration and border control between the two countries. Italy currently provides both material and technical support to the Libyan coast guard in order to intercept migrants at the beginning of their journey. Tens of thousands of migrants have been detained by the coast guard and transported to detention camps in the years since the agreement was made.
But investigations have also shown that the Libyan coast guard is riddled with corruption. There are reports of smugglers and local criminal gangs infiltrating the coast guard, and bribing them to turn a blind eye, allowing boats of people essentially being human trafficked, to reach international waters. For example, only very recently on the 1st of May, rescue charity SOS Mediterranee saved 236 migrants who had become stranded at sea, with the Italian coast guard rescuing a further 532 people. Some of the passengers afterwards explained how they had been beaten by traffickers in Libya and forced to make the crossing on small dinghies; the Libyan coast guard failed to come to their rescue.
Even if boats do get intercepted, the migrant detention camps they get taken to are hotbeds of abuse, and some migrants have even expressed how they would rather die, or throw themselves out of the boat than return to Libya. After UN staff visited Libyan detention centres in 2018, their report cited thousands of migrants and refugees subject to “torture, ill-treatment, forced labour, and rape by the guards”. It also disclosed that women are often detained in facilities without female guards, increasing the risk of sexual abuse, and are furthermore “often subjected to strip searches carried out, or watched, by male guards.”
The systematic violations of human rights which occur in these camps, including torture, sexual assault, and even arbitrary murder – are unfortunately commonplace. Italy’s support of Libyan rescue missions has therefore unsurprisingly been widely condemned by human rights organisations.
Any bilateral agreements between Libya and Italy, however, must take into account the nuances of organised crime, and the involvement of local populations on the ground. Communities living in remote areas on the border between Libya and Niger – where many refugees first cross into Libya – become economically involved in criminal activity including the trade of weapons and the smuggling of migrants, and have come to be dependent on these activities for income. Giuseppe Loprete from the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) has highlighted this often overlooked factor, stressing how irregular migration is wrapped up with local economies and that therefore these communities, and local dynamics, must be considered in any diplomatic negotiations.
The 2018 UN report spoke of “unimaginable horrors” for migrants, “from the moment they enter Libya throughout their stay in the country, and – if they make it that far – during the subsequent attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea”. But their hardship doesn’t just end when they reach the shore. It must be understood that not only do migrants endure inhumane conditions from the moment they leave their own country and throughout their journey, but they are then met with further exploitation in agricultural camps in Europe, where they have no rights or decent living conditions.
During his visit, Draghi did acknowledge that “terrorism, organised crime and human trafficking are issues that affect both countries equally and need to be worked through together”, but without addressing the systemic corruption which allows for such exploitation and human rights abuses in the first place, such diplomatic visits under the guise of ‘cooperation’ with only serve to perpetuate the problem.
Featured image credit: alex-andreev-06 (Flickr)
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