Dead, dehumanised: coffins readied in Palermo for victims of another migrant tragedy earlier in June. Lucio Ganci / Demotix. All rights reserved.
The arrival of spring in the Mediterranean heralded a surge in the number of migrants risking their lives in fragile and overcrowded boats, making the journey from north Africa to Europe in search of a better life. Unfortunately, the Mediterranean crossing is also synonymous with death, as illustrated by the tragic example of 17 migrants who drowned whilst attempting to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.
A central hub along the migration trail is Libya. After the 2011 uprising, the country resumed its position as a key destination and transit country for refugees and economic migrants from north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. While many are fleeing destitution, conflict and human-rights abuses, their uniform objective is to reach Europe. But before they can begin their journey across the Mediterranean, they must first survive Libya’s migrant trap.
In May 2013, Libya passed its Political Isolation Law (PIL), similar to de-Baathification in post-Saddam Iraq, disqualifying anyone involved in the Gaddafi regime from working within the new government. With a shortage of political leaders and qualified professionals, the law has rendered it impossible for the government to build viable state institutions and implement laws necessary for Libya’s transition from authoritarian to democratic rule.
The inability of the government to construct a functioning police and military has left the country on the verge of collapse. The gun is now the symbol of power in Libya, with militia groups who rose up during the revolution filling the security vacuum.
In their role as Libya’s de facto power brokers, militias have arrogated to themselves responsibility for ridding the country of unwanted migrants. Driven by their assumed “national duty”, they have arrested thousands of predominantly black migrants—often at the end of the barrel of a gun.
Arrests can take place anywhere and those without “proper documentation” are transferred to government and militia-controlled detention centres, where they are held indefinitely until their fate is decided. Between 4,000 and 6,000 migrants are estimated to be detained in Libya at any time.
Upon entry to the centres, such as the notorious Abu Salim prison and the underground tunnels of Tripoli zoo, migrants are screened for HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. The sick are immediately deported. The rest are quickly weakened by regular beatings, inadequate sanitary facilities and lack of food and drinking water, with some detainees in Abu Salim reduced to drinking toilet water. Although ill-health spreads as a consequence, many migrants are denied adequate medical care due to budget restraints and xenophobia—especially towards black Africans, viewed (perversely) as inherent carriers of disease.
Without access to consular assistance, the detainees have no idea what their fate will be or when it will arrive. The most likely result is deportation: in 2013 Libya deported 25,000 migrants, mainly to Niger and Chad.
In the absence of a national asylum system, and having failed to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, Libya has been free to carry out makeshift policies which discriminate against sub-Saharan Africans in need of protection. The authorities have welcomed Syrians, who are free to register as asylum-seekers, permitting them access to public services. But Amnesty International has reported that asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan Africa have largely been denied this opportunity, thus increasing their chances of detention. Unfounded allegations of black mercenaries fighting on behalf of Colonel Gaddafi during the uprising have led Libyans to perceive sub-Saharan Africans as a threat to national security, fuelling the drive by militias to arrest black migrants.
Libya’s transitional phase has been marred by political ineptitude and rogue violence, which have created the conditions for the abuse of migrants and asylum-seekers. Libya needs to protect the rights of its foreign nationals by implementing a migration policy consistent with international standards.
The inability of the government to construct a functioning police and military has left the country on the verge of collapse.
First, it must disable the Political Isolation Law, which undermines national reconciliation, derails democratisation, destabilises security and causes the collapse of numerous state functions and public services. Libya would be better served by adopting a reconciliatory system, similar to the Islamic teaching of tawba, which would facilitate the return of some Gaddafi bureaucrats to government positions. Their political expertise would help secure the rule of law, a precondition of political reform.
Libya must also recognise that its detain-and-deport policy is counter-productive in a country suffering from a labour shortage. Before the uprising, there were an estimated two million foreign workers in Libya, representing about a third of the workforce. Many were undocumented migrants who filled a gap at the lower end of the labour market, working in Libya’s oil fields and on construction sites. Persistent instability has left only half a million.
It would be in Libya’s interest to provide work permits and visas to migrants needed to help return oil production to pre-conflict levels and to assist in the reconstruction of Libya, whose war-torn infrastructure offers rich opportunities to investors. By ending the persecution of its migrant population, Libya might just be able to restart its economy and realise the goals of its revolution.