EU policy: Bilateral agreements with Libya have increased the danger to migrants during the current upheaval

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By Don Flynn, Director MRN (MRN)

Questions are being raised about the fate of 700 immigrants detained in a prison facility in the south eastern Libyan town of Al Kufrah which was constructed with money provided by the Italian government in 2005. Forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi are reported to have seized the town from rebel fighters at the end of April.

Al Kufrah came to play an important part in the ‘downstream’ immigration control policies of the Italian government after it entered into a bilateral agreement with the Tripoli government in August 2004. This allowed the Italian authorities to transport over 1500 migrants and refugees who had been detained at the Lampedusa holding centre into the Libya jurisdiction.

The immigration detention centre in Al Kufrah is one of three such facilities financed by Italian money; the other two are at Gharyan, close to Tripoli, and Sebha, in the south west of the country.

The Al Kufrah centre has been a cause of considerable concern because of its location close to the border of Sudan, in a region where people smuggling on trails which extend eastwards into the troubled refugee sending areas of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia is known to be in the hands of criminal gangs.

The documentary film, ‘Like a Man on Earth’, recently screened by MRN, features evidence from migrants trafficked between the northern Libyan coastal cities and Al Kufrah in container trucks allegedly paid for by Italian money. Accounts are given by migrants arrested in towns like Benghazi and Misrata who are taken to the detention facility in Al Kufrah. According to statements made in the film, the prison authorities then effectively sell the detainees to traffickers operating in the town. On payment of fees typically in the region of US$500 the migrants are returned to the northern cities where they attempt to continue their journeys to comparative safety across the Mediterranean.

Concern about the treatment of migrants under the terms of Italy’s agreements with the Gadhafi authorities has been widespread. In 2009 Human Rights Watch published Pushed Back, Pushed around – Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers.

The Libyan experience of returns policies has provided evidence of concerns that partnership with governments in unstable regions is a dangerous strategy, which could well increase the risks which migrants face of falling prey to people smuggling and gross exploitation. The current position of the 700 migrants believed to have been detained in Al Kufrah at the commencement of the current hostilities is likely to be extremely precarious. The instability of the civil authorities is believed to have placed detainees at the mercy of people traffickers, producing a situation of extreme peril for the people concerned.

The European authorities have done little to redeem the dangers in which the policies pursued by member states have placed migrants. Escape routes across the Mediterranean for migrants, now unquestionably in the position of being refugees fleeing extreme violence, are hampered by policies which continue to hinder landings on EU territory. Several recent stories in the press report boatloads of refugees being denied assistance by NATO patrols in the region, leading to scores of deaths.

A European Council due to take place in June is expected to consider EU policy with regard to the reception of migrants fleeing the region. The current mood of many governments is that, rather than stepping up aid to ensure that people needing protection are better provided for, the EU should consider scrapping free movement across internal borders in order to ensure that refugee arrivals are contained in the southern European region.

This approach has been thoroughly criticised by a number of commentators, including legal experts based at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). CEPS analysis sees the current direction of European policy as constituting a ‘race to the bottom’, as members states fight to limit the impact of refugee movement on their own territories by closing their borders with countries receiving asylum seekers.

Rallying civil society opposition to these developments will be a key task for groups concerned with the rights of refugees and migrants in the coming weeks. Groups like ECAS and European Alternatives have already launched appeals for greater solidarity with people displaced by the upheaval in the North African neighbourhood region.

The European network, Migreurope, which monitors immigration enforcement and conditions of return across the member states of the EU, has produced several reports outlining longstanding concerns about the situation with regard to Libya and North Africa. These include:

“Deadly grip in the Mediterranean Sea”: http://www.migreurop.org/article1928.html
“Urgency of a moratorium on the expulsions to Tunisia, and for a worthy reception of Tunisian nationals in the EU !!”: http://www.migreurop.org/article1881.html
“Call for a humanitarian evacuation of the 250 Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somali refugees blocked in Benghazi”: http://www.migreurop.org/article1831.html
“Call on the European Union for a support intervention in the Mediterranean area”: http://www.migreurop.org/article1820.html
“The European Union’s migration policy : support for dictatorships to the south of the Mediterranean”: http://www.migreurop.org/article1817.html
“Europe does not have to be afraid of democracy in North Africa.”: http://www.migreurop.org/article1810.html
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