Trapped in Libya: the flotsam of the West’s wars

Next week, the EU will launch work on its plan to tackle the Mediterranean migrant crisis. The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has asked the UN for help to dismantle the smuggling networks.

European ambassadors have drafted a UN resolution, under chapter VII (which allows use of force), to tackle the crisis. For them the military option is the brightest light. As Mogherini said, the EU wants the authority to “use all necessary means to seize and dispose of the [smugglers’] vessels.

“Thus far in 2015, over 60,000 people have tried to cross from Libya to Europe. Of them, close to two thousand have died – a death toll 20 times higher than in 2014,” it continues.

The plan to destroy the boats will trap the migrants and refugees in Libya. The pressures on them to leave their homelands will not be addressed.

Why do people leave their homes? The surge of migrants comes from countries in the grip of civil war (Syria) or economic collapse due to western trade policies (western Africa). Since there is no plan to quell the conflict in Syria and since the trade policies remain adverse for African peasants, the flood of refugees will certainly continue.

Refusal of entry into Europe is not going to stop the refugees from fleeing their homelands. Raising the costs of transit into the US, for instance, has not halted the refugee and migrant tide into that country from across the highly militarised US-Mexico border.

What are the conditions like in Libya? In February, Leonard Doyle of the International Organisation for Migration said: “The situation in Libya is so chaotic, whatever policies we adopt it doesn’t matter. They are desperate to get away.”

Doyle warned the international community that “there are going to be some terrible tragedies unless we step up search and rescue.” Little was done.

Amnesty International’s 10 May report, Libya is full of cruelty, documents the dangers faced by migrants and refugees in the war-ravaged country.

Since 2011, Libya has been ripped apart, its social fabric torn asunder and its state structure largely absent. Nato’s bombardment precipitously destroyed the state and handed over the country to warring militias.

The threat to the refugees is a direct outcome of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, ironically under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) banner. A new UNSC resolution is not going to be about the protection of the refugees, but to use force to destroy their lifeline. R2P has been ground under by the West’s behavior in Libya.

What does Amnesty’s report say? The smugglers use the chaos to inflict enormous costs upon the refugees. When the refugees arrive in Libya, they are held hostage – asked to pay more money or else the smugglers would abandon them. “They treated us like sheep,” said a Syrian man. “They locked us up in a deserted area, under the heat and sun.”

Sexual violence is routine. A Nigerian woman told Amnesty: “They took us to a place outside the city in the desert, tied my husband’s hands and legs to a pole and gang-raped me in front of his eyes. There were eleven men in total.”

In the context of violence and increased xenophobia, the refugees have little choice. They pay up. If the refugees escape to the Libyan authorities, they are incarcerated. “They packed us in prisons saying that we are all contagious and have Ebola,” said a Nigerian woman.

Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia oscillate between tight border restrictions and closure. If the EU also shuts the door across the Mediterranean, the refugees would be trapped in dangerous Libya. Amnesty asks Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia to open their borders to the refugees, and asks the EU to shun its military strategy.

The 1951 international convention on refugees is a Cold War document. The West pushed it to welcome escapees from the “unfree” world (the Soviet bloc) to the “free” world (the West).

That convention remains in effect, but in a different context. It is now people who flee the policies of the West – whether trade policies or war – that seek shelter, and it is these people who are routinely denied entry.

The US continues to see merit in the violence in Syria (by training new fighters), but has only taken in 546 Syrian refugees. This is an object lesson in hypocrisy.

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