Storm in the Central Mediterranean: European priorities, Libyan realities

Libya finds itself at the nexus of strident efforts by the EU to put a short-term brake on inward migration. A veil of humanitarian language conceals deals that sacrifice basic human rights and regional stability. The consequences include trapped refugees and migrants and a weakened system of international law.

% Complete

    The European agenda

    At the Ramada Plaza hotel in Tunis, the descent into lawlessness in neighbouring Libya is discussed over pressed white tablecloths, under brass chandeliers, in a cavernous banquet hall. After the international community’s evacuation from Tripoli in 2014 much of the business of government switched to venues like this in the capital of Tunisia.

    Embassies and international aid agencies have arrived like luxury squatters, but the failure of their Libya-related conferences to deliver meaningful progress in the country itself has bred cynicism among organisers and delegates. After one recent event, an international agency official shared a picture of a human rights training session for bored-looking commanders of Libya’s notorious migrant detention centres. It was captioned: “Do you think they’re listening?”

    Mustafa Al-Baroni, the mayor of Zintan, a mountain city in western Libya whose fighters were influential in toppling Gadhafi, wonders whether the conferences are really the best use of EU money: “This money could be used on projects in Libya… I heard the EU gave Libya millions but I don’t see it.”

    Focus shifts to central Mediterranean

    Traditionally, EU foreign policy has been hard to discern. But the arrival of large numbers of refugees and migrants on European shores has brought rare clarity to EU institutions. Turkey was handed billions in development aid as well as political concessions to halt the flows into Greece in March 2016. This deal, in effect, exported the EU’s external border to the protection of Turkey, a country sliding towards autocracy, with a regime accused of widespread human rights abuses. Since then the EU focus has shifted to the central Mediterranean.

    “Tens of thousands of migrants [are] in Libya today, looking for ways to enter the EU, with the number of arrivals increasing every day”, warned a June 2016 communiqué from the European Commission.

    There has been a re-gearing of all EU institutions to the single purpose of reducing inward migration under its Agenda on Migration. From the Horn of Africa to Nigeria and north through Niger to Libya, countries willing to contain migration flows and take back their own migrants receive security sector support and development aid from the EU, regardless of whether they had previously been international pariahs, such as Sudan or Eritrea.

    Giulia Lagana, EU migration and asylum analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, says the impact is felt in “relations with countries in Africa and elsewhere, where development targets, democracy and human rights, and even security in fragile areas are being sidelined in the search for quick fixes to stem arrivals or step up migrant returns”.

    The crossroads of all these efforts is Libya. The departure point for 95 per cent of refugees and migrants on the central Mediterranean, it is a country in turmoil and without legitimate national institutions. While returning refugees and migrants to Turkey has been challenged unsuccessfully in Greece’s highest court, returns to Libya are a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement, under which no person can be returned to a country where they are at risk of persecution.

    The country has three main centres of power and countless armed groups. The UN and the EU chose to recognise the Government of National Accord (GNA), which has little support in eastern or southern Libya and relies on loosely-aligned militias even in the capital, Tripoli. Its prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, governs from a naval base for fear of being attacked in the city itself.

    Some priorities are more equal than others

    Three main priorities emerged for the EU in Libya in 2017: a reduction in sea crossings, improvement of conditions for migrants in Libya, and development that provides alternatives to smuggling. Officially these priorities are equal, but as one EU diplomat said, lip service is paid to stabilising Libya, but “migration is the biggest concern of all for EU politicians”.

    At the centre of the EU’s insistence that it wants to do more than just trap migrants in Libya is the $3.5 billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which includes $108 million announced in April 2017 for local development projects in Libya and improved protection for refugees and migrants. Six months on from its announcement, not a single development project has begun in the country.

    The EU and UN operate via remote control from Tunis. For security reasons, UN agencies are allowed a rotation of between three and five international staff on the ground in Libya each week. Local staff, who are relied on for most of the work, face routine threats and intimidation from armed groups.

    With nothing yet to show for its development priority, the EU has attempted to show progress on improving conditions for migrants stuck in Libyan detention. The lion’s share of the money allocated for that effort, some $57 million, is going to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to run its Assisted Voluntary Return and Repatriation programme.

    Meanwhile the reality of conditions inside Libya’s migrant gulags is horrific with abuses ranging from rape and torture to forced labour. The UN’s refugee and migration agencies have limited access to detention centres and must apply in writing before visiting – they cannot conduct spot inspections.

    The migrant prisons are under the notional control of Libya’s department to counter illegal migration (DCIM). Inmates are routinely rented out to local employers, with DCIM officials or local militia profiting. Detainees are also bought and sold by militias, which extort ransom payments from their families. The arrival of international funding into the prison system has created additional incentives for armed groups to seize control of DCIM centres in pursuit of money and legitimacy.

    Mohamed Sifaw has a better idea than most what goes on inside the detention centres. For the past 13 years he has been a volunteer with the Libyan Red Crescent in Zawiya, a port city west of Tripoli. This has been one of the key departure points for smuggling networks.

    He says that the al-Nasr prison in Zawiya, run by a militia linked to smuggling networks but recognised by the DCIM since 2016, makes inmates survive on one meal a day. The nearby Surman prison was closed in August after human traffickers repeatedly entered and seized inmates, Sifaw said.

    For the past three years, collecting corpses of migrants drowned at sea and washed up along the shoreline has been part of Sifaw’s weekly routine. The 32-year-old engineer has recovered 385 bodies from the beach in Zawiya. Since August, however, not a single body has come ashore. Locals speak of a “strict new force” bringing back migrants from the boats.

    Italy and the parallel process

    Helen’s first sight of the Mediterranean came after weeks of clandestine travel. From her home in Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, she journeyed to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, across the vastness of Sudan and the deserts of southern Libya. It cost the 23-year-old’s family $6,000: $4,000 paid to a network of Eritrean and Sudanese smugglers and another $2,000 for the Libyans who supplied the rubber boat she was meant to climb into one night in May with another 70 women and children.

    The boat did not make it off the beach. A truckload of armed men took her group into custody and delivered them to what appeared to be a prison nearby. At the gates some of the women were told they were being set free while others, including Helen, were ushered into the crowded facility. She would later discover her companions were not freed. They were sold.

    In the months that followed both sets of women were traded among armed groups who demanded ransoms from their families in frantic phone calls, while inebriated guards took turns raping some of the women. If the women resisted, their children were taken away until they cooperated.

    By August enough money had been paid and most of the women were returned to the custody of Eritrean smugglers who took them to a “connection house” in Bani Walid, one of the hubs in Libya’s human traffic trade. After a nightmare tour of the miserable options for migrants in Libya – from official detention centres to warehouse dungeons and connection houses – Helen was no closer to escape. New forces on the coast had begun to stop all migrant boats from leaving.

    While the EU conducted policy on a grand scale, with naval missions, summits, and development aid, a covert, parallel process to stop the migrant boats leaving for Europe got under way, led by Italy.

    In June, a group of elders in the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha, one of the main departure points for migrants, was called to a meeting with representatives of the Italian government. According to one of those present, they were asked to pass a message to the main smugglers: “Tell them the golden age is over.”

    Those who heeded the warning would be allowed to keep the illicit fortunes they had made, the Italians told the elders, and would be given the chance to launder their reputations with seemingly legitimate roles in Libya’s security services and avoid potential prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

    In early July, Mario Morcone, the chief of staff of Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti, met with officials from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Rome. According to someone present at the meeting, Morcone told the group the dramatic drop in sea crossings would continue, crediting successful talks with Libyan municipalities and promises of development aid.

    On the ground in Libya, the “municipal strategy” involved a handful of Libya’s smuggling kingpins widely known to Europe’s intelligence agencies. One is 28-year-old Abdurahman al-Milad, the head of the coast guard in Zawiya, cousin of the Khushlaf brothers, Mohamed and Ibrahim, who control the main Zawiya militias, the refinery, and the port. He took over the Zawiya coast guard from another officer who was transferred to Tripoli after death threats.

    In the neighbouring port city of Sabratha, Ahmed Dabbashi is the smuggling kingpin. A UN panel of experts named him one of two “main facilitators” of migrant smuggling and human trafficking on the Libyan coast. He and his family are well known to Italian authorities.

    The Anas al-Dabbashi brigade was hired in 2015 to provide external security at the Mellitah oil and gas compound, which is co-owned by the Italian oil company ENI and the Libyan National Oil Corporation. It used the income from Mellitah to establish itself as the leading military force in the port city. After entreaties from the Italians his brigade took possession of an abandoned prison 3 kilometres from Mellitah and has since operated the facility as a migrant detention centre. It was later handed to him officially by the GNA.

    The mayor of Sabratha, Hussein al-Thawadi, said the murky deals were months in the making. “It was a mutual agreement between Italy, the EU, Serraj, and the smugglers themselves.”

    The mayor said he met with Italian officials twice in August, once in Tripoli and once in Rome, and said $20 million was promised to fund development projects in the cities affected by smuggling. Thawadi denies knowledge of any payments to the militias or smugglers by either the GNA or the Italian government. Italy’s foreign ministry insists the country does not do deals with traffickers. “The foreign ministry firmly denies that there is an agreement between Libyan traffickers and the Italian government”, a spokesperson said.

    Aref Ali Nayed, who was part of one of the first of several ill-fated efforts to govern the former dictatorship, is critical of Italy’s dealings. He argues that EU and Italian actions on migration are making a durable peace harder to achieve. Europe’s rush to recognise the Serraj administration, he said, saddled Libya with a government of “questionable legitimacy” in order to combat migration flows.

    “What we’re seeing is a shifting of Europe’s problems to become Libya’s problems”, he said. “Europe can do it now because we’re weak, but it risks creating real bitterness”, said Nayed, who until recently was Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

    Far from questioning Italy’s methods, EU officials have assigned $55 million from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to Italy’s interior ministry to manage Libya’s borders. In a speech to the European Parliament, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, saluted Italy’s “tireless and noble” efforts.

    Meanwhile, there has been no noticeable increase in the number of people held in official detention centres in Libya. A senior UN official said that many refugees and migrants were being sent to illegal warehouses run by smugglers. He specifically cited Zawiya, where international agencies have no access. “The question is, where are the people?” he said.

    Marwa Mohamed, a Libyan researcher with Amnesty International said they were in makeshift dungeons without any kind of oversight. “By focusing solely on detention centres we’re missing the point”, she said. “People are trapped in a country where there is no protection and no way out.”

    About the author
    Daniel Howden is a senior editor at Refugees Deeply. A contributor to The Economist and the Guardian, he was previously the Africa correspondent and deputy foreign editor at the Independent. This article was developed with the support of

    Read the full magazine issue

    Focus on Migration: Moving backward, moving forward? Volume 7, Issue 1 (Winter 2018)
    The contributors of this Great Insights on migration looked at policy frameworks and processes, existing realities and ongoing initiatives, as well as possible ways forward. The issue explores not only the complex challenges but also the potential that human mobility holds for development.
    05 February 2018
    Loading Conversation