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Europe’s Hypocritical Response to Reports of Slavery in Libya

Despite outrage over recent slavery reports, there is nothing new about migrants suffering in Libya. The E.U. has pushed to bring down their numbers regardless of the human cost, says policy expert Giulia Lagana, calling for the response to go beyond migrant returns.

Written by Giulia Lagana Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Protesters marched to the Libyan embassy in London.Chrissa Giannakoudi/NurPhoto

Suddenly the world has woken up to the horrors refugees and migrants undergo in Libya. Leaders in Europe, Africa and beyond have expressed shock and vowed to put an end to “modern-day slavery.” Pundits and celebrities have weighed in, with soccer player Paul Pogba even celebrating a goal by miming the breaking of chains.

The cause of all the outrage? A largely unsubstantiated report by international broadcaster CNN purporting to show slave auctions taking place, with black Africans sold for around $400. It put the situation in Libya in front of a global audience, but for anyone who has followed developments over the last decade, the news that migrants are systematically abused, tortured, enslaved, subjected to sexual violence and brutally murdered came as no surprise. Most of the European and African government representatives voicing outrage were already aware of the situation.

Ten years ago to this day, I was with the United Nations refugee agency on Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have landed. The Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers we interviewed recounted tales of shocking suffering similar to those we hear today – tales of kidnap for ransom, of rape, of torture.

Countless reports issued since by human rights organizations and the U.N., including a panel of experts working for the Security Council, have documented the abuses. Journalists have written about migrants in Libya and think-tanks have hired Libya experts to help them explain the complexities of the migration-driven economy in the country. As Italy has once again taken a prominent role in E.U. efforts to curb irregular migration from Libya, Italian reporters have traveled to the country and neighboring states.

The CNN investigation itself has been questioned by Libya experts, including some who work for the U.N., who point out that in what is effectively a failed state overrun by warring militias, migrants who are then put to work as unpaid laborers are exchanged for a pittance, without the need to pay hundreds of dollars for slaves.

So what has changed since 2007? The torturers back then were officials or other groups working for the Gaddafi regime, while the current ones are a motley crowd of militias, some of whom are theoretically working for the weak U.N.-backed government.

But a more important element is that public opinion – in Italy, where the coverage has been most extensive, but also across Europe, where anti-migrant sentiments hold sway – is now largely inured to the suffering of black and Arab migrants and refugees. Images of overcrowded Libyan jails full of men, women and children bearing the signs of hunger, pain and abuse have been seen by millions worldwide. The CNN report took it one step further and, crucially, jolted African governments into action to rescue their citizens following public protests.

The other factor that has changed is that the E.U. has become increasingly involved in the mess in Libya. The war-torn country desperately needs global powers to use their clout to put an end to the conflict —now driving increasing numbers of Libyans themselves to cross the sea to Italy, an unprecedented development in a country in which irregular migration has always been stigmatized. Instead, the E.U.’s primary objective has been to bring migrant numbers down, regardless of the human cost, even if that means pursuing potentially destabilizing policies that may bolster certain factions.

A migrant holds his head as he stands in a packed room at the Tariq al-Matar detention centre on the outskirts of the Libyan capital Tripoli. (TAHA JAWASHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Aside from the hypocrisy, there are various other reasons why the outrage is troubling. The first is that the response from the E.U., African Union (A.U.) and U.N. has largely focused on the evacuation of migrants and refugees held in detention in Libya. This is expected to take place via a boost to the E.U.-funded repatriation program run by the U.N. migration agency (IOM) and to the fledgling U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) initiative to fly refugees to safety outside the country, as well as through the establishment of an ad hoc E.U.-A.U.-U.N. joint task force. However, while returns should be part of the solution they should not be the only answer.

Not all the foreign nationals in Libya want to or should return to their countries of origin. Tens of thousands of migrants are still able to work in what was until recently one of Africa’s main destination countries and where the top three migrant nationalities are still Egypt, Niger and Chad – whose citizens rarely try to move on to Europe.

Moreover, as UNHCR special envoy for the Central Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel has warned, many thousands are refugees, who risk being returned to torture and even death in the countries from which they fled. Disturbing reports have already started to emerge of officials from the Eritrean regime seeking out their nationals in Libyan jails, for instance, and a significant proportion of West Africans – whom UNHCR cannot help in Libya – also in need of protection.

The focus on the migrants’ “suffering” also feeds into the victimization of people who are not simply pawns in the hands of people smugglers, but have needs and aspirations that will not disappear once they return home.

The third reason why the current outrage jars is that it systematically sidesteps the issue of responsibility for the situation of refugees and migrants in Libya. Responsibilities lie downstream, where African governments have failed to deliver democratic rights and the economic opportunities their youth need, and upstream, in Europe, where containment policies via support for what passes for the Libyan coast guard and assorted armed groups have made it even more difficult for migrants trapped in Libya to reach safety.

A sustained campaign in Italy and Europe against the nongovernmental agencies that operate rescue boats off Libya has seen their number reduced. Those that remain are regularly attacked by the local coast guard and increasingly ordered by the Italian maritime authorities to stand helplessly by as the Libyans force refugees and migrants, often at gunpoint, to return to the torture cells they are fleeing.

Responsibility lies also with the people traffickers and smugglers who operate with impunity in Libya. However, the E.U.’s refrain that it is “tackling the smugglers’ business model” rings hollow. Amnesty International has highlighted the “dark web of collusion” whereby many of those managing the trade are the very same people with whom the E.U. and member states engage to bring migrant arrivals down.

Many also argue that E.U. policies have effectively fed the migrant business, turning smugglers into interceptors and pushing up migrants’ value as commodities. Not all the traffickers and smugglers are Libyan, as most hail from the same countries their prey or customers come from. Their networks span continents, where little action has been forthcoming, with the exception of the routine show arrests in Italy of migrants who pilot boats. As Giovanni Falcone, the Italian anti-mafia prosecutor who was slain by the mob in 1992 often said, law enforcement should “follow the money,” including when it reaches pockets in Europe.

In the case of the people currently trapped in Libya, more and better actions need to follow after funds have been handed over to U.N. agencies to return or evacuate desperate migrants and refugees. These actions must prioritize stabilizing the country and creating legal ways for people on the move to travel without fearing for their safety or lives. If this does not happen, the horrors will continue – and no new shocking report will galvanize the world into action.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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