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Think you know what's happening on Europe's borders? The reality is worse

Refugees and asylum seekers are often used as a political football. I want Westerners to hear their voices directly

Sally Hayden
21 April 2022, 12.00am
The UK has announced proposals to resettle asylum seekers in Rwanda
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Daniel Chesterton/ PHC Images/ Alamy

There are reports of mass graves. There is clear evidence of crimes against humanity. Yet since 2017, more than 90,000 men, women and children have been forced back to Libya – a country run by militias, without a functioning government.

Today, the European Union carries out surveillance over the Central Mediterranean – the stretch of sea between North Africa and Italy – using drones, helicopters and planes. Information about boat sightings is conveyed to the Libyan Coast Guard, a loose collection of people that sometimes includes militia members and even sanctioned human smugglers.

For the past five years, the EU has been spending tens of millions of euros on Libya’s Coast Guard, too, encouraging it to carry out interceptions on what is known as ‘the world’s deadliest migration route’. Most refugees and migrants caught trying to reach Europe are locked up in detention centres in Libya, which Pope Francis, among others, has likened to “concentration camps”. They are not part of a legal process. They have no right to contest their incarceration.

I wrote my new book, ‘My Fourth Time, We Drowned’, because I wanted to document the horrors that we in the rich world are responsible for. Over the past decade in particular, our governments have overseen the increased securitisation of borders and the deliberate incarceration or silencing of people who try to seek safety. Seventy years after the global refugee system began, it is crumbling.

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Readers may think they already know what is happening on Europe’s borders, but I can assure you the information I gathered over the past five years was hard won: I was placed under a year-long criminal investigation myself by German prosecutors, and received death threats and security warnings from government intelligence agencies. The book includes reporting from Rwanda – now infamous as the country that has signed a £120m deal to take asylum seekers from the UK – as well as from Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Sudan, across Europe and from a rescue ship off the Libyan coast.

Last month, an Independent Fact-Finding Mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council released its second report. In its first, it had said that violations against refugees and migrants in Libya may amount to crimes against humanity, and that they were being overseen by Libyan authorities.

The latest report said that its experts were investigating reports of a mass grave in Bani Walid, a trafficking hub that I focus a chapter of my book on. It pointed out that European states continue to cooperate with the Libyan authorities and the coastguard. “Since October 2021, the mission has continued to document further cases of murder, torture, inhumane acts, rape, persecution, and enslavement of migrants by some State authorities, militias, armed groups and traffickers, employing a consistent pattern of conduct.”

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There have been some developments. In March, Germany announced that it would stop training the Libyan coastguard. “[We] cannot currently justify the training of the Libyan coastguard by German soldiers in view of the repeated unacceptable behaviour by individual units of the Libyan Coast Guard toward refugees and migrants, and also toward non-governmental organisations,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse said. “We have information that in at least two cases, the coastguard acted in a completely unacceptable and illegal manner.”

But funding continues – not just towards the Coast Guard itself, but also to a range of organisations and UN bodies working in Libya, who are ostensibly charged with improving conditions for refugees and migrants, but are operating in a context where militias stand to gain significant benefits.

As of 18 April, at least 4,013 refugees and migrants have been intercepted in the Central Mediterranean Sea so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Of these, 169 were minors.

But returnees are so desperate to escape, some manage to pay their way out of detention and try their luck again. Deaths continue. Last week alone, at least 53 people were reported dead or missing off the Libyan coast.

The UK’s Armed Forces have been involved in training the Libyan Coast Guard in the past, with then-defence secretary Michael Fallon saying in 2016 that “fighting the smuggling of people and arms” would “make Britain safer and more secure.”.

The UK also supported NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, ensuring Muammar Gaddafi’s ousting. “Do we want a situation where a failed, pariah state festers on Europe’s southern border, potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for all our allies, as well as for the people of Libya?” asked then-prime minister David Cameron. Of course, that’s close to what transpired.

I want to remind the world that we are people. We are not just talking about numbers

Now, despite all that they have endured by the time they finally reach British territory, the UK is planning to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, where a small number of evacuees from Libya are also sent, as part of an African Union and UN Refugee Agency inked, EU-funded programme. That deal sees Rwanda used as a transit centre, so the majority of refugees brought there are eventually taken on to other countries in the West, and many of the sources I met in the country are already in Sweden, Norway and Canada.

A lot of the people sent to Rwanda from the UK are likely to be Africans, who have already been through Libya, a country commonly referred to among refugees as “hell”. But, unlike the EU-funded programme, the UK’s deal will mean Rwanda is the refugees’ final destination – despite it being a dictatorship where there is little freedom of speech and where much of the population is still badly traumatised from the 1994 genocide. The most recent data from the World Bank shows that nearly 40% of Rwandans were living below the international poverty line in 2016. It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Refugees and asylum seekers are often used as a political football, and rarely listened to directly. I wrote my book because I wanted Westerners to hear their silenced voices. Recently, refugees trapped in Libya are finding more ways to speak out and fight back. Last year, hundreds staged a historic, months-long protest outside the offices of the UN Refugee Agency in Libyan capital Tripoli, though eventually it was violently dispersed and many participants detained.

Still, a Refugees In Libya Twitter account was set up, where some of the tens of thousands of people trapped in the country have worked together to share accounts of what they are going through. They have even organised press conferences on YouTube and Zoom. “I want to remind the world that we are people. We are not just talking about numbers,” said South Sudanese asylum seeker, David Oliver Yambio, during a recent event. “We are talking about someone who has a name. People that have a family. A father; a mother; a child; a sister to somebody.”

The rest of us have a responsibility to make sure those voices are listened to.

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