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Libya, waiting room for the Mediterranean

10 November Nov 2015 1351 10 November 2015
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Though refugees and migrants are arriving in unprecedented waves in the Balkans, the flow from Libya remains an issue that must not be neglected. The European Union is increasingly interested in escalating military operations in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast, but the political turmoil in the country has been without a solution for almost a year. Last week, the UN resumed unity deal negotiations that even the Tripoli-based General National Congress, which had boycotted the talks, is optimistic about. In the meantime, caught in between two disputing governments, the Libyan Coast Guard is severely underequipped for the humanitarian problem in its seas.

Misurata, Zuwara, Tripoli; Libya – Libya is torn by civil war. The two parliaments, which have been negotiating for almost a year on a unity deal, lack real power in a country where hundreds of militias under different colors and names tear the country apart.

However, both sides in Libya oppose the so-called anti-smuggler mission approved last May by the European Union. The mission was a response to the massive arrival of migrants and aimed to stop the increasing number of deaths in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015. Without the vote of the Libyan ambassador, the UN Security Council cannot approve the EU mission. Unity deal talks with the UN were repeatedly unsuccessful, but those that resumed last Thursday seem likely to reach an agreement.

The General National Congress, a body led by the Muslim Brotherhood–and not internationally recognized, and the House of Representatives, the body that replaced the previous Congress, resumed UN-led talks for a unity deal on Thursday. They seem to be approaching an agreement, according to UN envoy Bernardino Leon, though previous talks were repeatedly unsuccessful. Both governments have agreed on one point, declaring that the military action planned by Brussels would be an open attack against national sovereignty.

Still, the Italian Navy has already been stationed a few miles off the west coast of Libya for over four months, and military jets fly over Libyan ports every day.

European armed forces drove away a crew of the Libyan Coast Guard, stationed off the coast of Garabulli to inspect an Italian fishing boat, in the beginning of May.

Since the beginning of the year, we have rescued hundreds of migrants off our coasts. The lack of resources is our main problem: we have 30 men, mostly volunteers and former revolutionaries, and only two patrol boats and five smaller boats, in addition to a fishing boat and a tug.

Colonel Reda Issa, Libyan Coast Guard

The Libyan Coast Guard does not have an adequate budget since the Central Bank of Libya blocked the budgets of both governments.

Though embarkation points only exist in about 200 kilometers of coast between Al Khoms and the Tunisian border, the smuggling network operates across the whole country. “The border between Egypt and Libya is open. Only the Egyptians are there, whereas the Libyan authorities have not been seen for five months,” said Colonel Issa.

Hundreds of migrants and potential asylum seekers enter Libya every day through the south of the Sahara, at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders and through the Salvador Triangle, a desert between Libya, Algeria and Niger controlled by fundamentalist groups. Tabu and Tuareg groups, two cultural minorities living in the south of the country, represent the first link in the chain of human trafficking in Libya. The business goes beyond tribal divisions. Federalists in Ajdabiya, the first city on the eastern migrant route, work with people of Misurata, who are politically their sworn enemies, whereas traffickers in Zintan, on the western route in the country, work with the Amazigh people based on the coast.

We were crammed into a barrack in the open countryside. When one of us asked why we would not proceed to Tripoli, they would beat them

Ahmed, a 18-year-old boy from Somalia

One night, Ahmed was loaded onto a truck heading to the capital. Halfway there, the truck was stopped; the traffickers took some of the women and disappeared for several hours. “Once back, they [the women] were crying desperately,” said Ahmed looking down. “They later told us they had been raped”.

That night, Ahmed managed to reach Tripoli, and after a couple of days on another truck, he was brought to Garbulli. After a few hours at sea, the Misurata Coast Guard stopped the boat with over 100 people onboard. Libyan soldiers later brought the rescued migrants from the sea to the port of Al Khoms. Ahmed still had no clue where he would end up.

A few days later, Salah Dabbus, director of the centre against irregular migration in Misurata, confimed to Afronline that Ahmed had been brought there with other 100 migrants. Today, over 1500 migrants are in the centre. Most come from Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria and Ghana, whereas only a few Syrians transit through Libya now, due to safety reasons.

Waiting to set sail

Libya has no laws for potential refugees, such as Eritreans and Somalis. They stay here for some months and then they are relocated to Tripoli.

Salah Dabbus, Director of the centre against irregular migration in Misurata

Overcrowded detention centres and a lack of international cooperation on the management of migrants result in the eventual release of migrants, who end up looking for smugglers to get to Europe.

To date, there is no strategy for how to deal with migration in Libya. However, Europe has not seemed to have found a solution for the hundreds of thousands of people waiting to leave, either.

The high representative for foreign affairs of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, proposed the Khartoum process solution, which includes agreements with the dictators of departure countries, reception centres in the countries of transit, and a campaign against human trafficking. Europe saves migrants from potential shipwreck, but it hurls them back into the Libyan limbo. However, with the migration plan that Europe envisages, migrants might not be the only victims.

Four years after the revolution that led to the end of the Gaddafi regime, the dozens of fundamentalist groups raging in the country may use the specter of the Western invader to call the masses to support the jihad even after traffickers leave.

Mogherini rushed to declare that a military action would only be carried out after international approval and in cooperation with Libyan authorities, both national and local. Still, it is still not clear why the Libyan army did not destroy the smugglers’ boats last year, right after migrants were rescued though the Italian navy operation Mare Nostrum.

“Nothing has been done,” said Saddiq Jiash, deputy mayor of the city of Zuwara, one of the main gateways for migrants heading to Europe.

“Those boats were brought back to Libya and used repeatedly, up to six times,” highlighted a smuggler operating in the west of Tripoli. “Worn-out wood has often been the cause of shipwrecks,” Jiash added. “The death of 700 people last April is a tragedy, and I understand Europe’s reaction. Yet, we have been seeing dead bodies floating in the sea for over a year now, and we have been asking cooperation with Europe since then. But no one talked about it. I don’t get the logic behind this military action,” he concluded.

by Nancy Porsia

Translated by Evelina Urgolo

Edited by Naomi Cohen