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No to a Europe of Walls

Father Mussie Zerai,
Chairman of Habeshia Agency

Everyone is now aware of the fate of thousands of migrants stranded in Libya. It is a situation brought about by indifference and, indeed, very often with the substantial complicity of European policies which have been in place for years. In recent months, we have seen a further escalation of violence, horror and systematic violations of human rights. As confirmed by UNHCR, IOM and other respectable NGOs, the Libyan reality is a real hell (certainly in the detention centres, but even outside) for a growing number of young people, guilty only of having been forced to abandon their homeland in order to seek freedom, security and survival itself elsewhere. They are all driven by hope for a better and more dignified life. The Holy Father, on the 24 October 2021, said, “We must put an end to the return of migrants to unsafe countries”. Specifying that priority be given “to saving lives at sea, with predictable rescue and disembarkation devices, guaranteeing them decent living conditions, alternatives to detention, regular migration routes and access to asylum procedures.” The Pope laments “And how those who are turned away suffer! There are real ‘lagers’ (concentration camps) there.” In unequivocal terms, Pope Francis is both highlighting the gravity of human rights violations in Libya, as well as the responsibility of those who order pushbacks to unsafe ports. This is just some of the evidence that backs up these claims. Between 1 and 4 October 2021, starting from the suburb of Gargaresh and then extending the operation to all of Tripoli, the Libyan police forces arrested over 5,000 people, women and men, as ‘illegal immigrants’ – an accusation that, for the Libyan state, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, is not a simple administrative violation but a serious criminal offence. This involves months and years of imprisonment, in detention. And these mass arrests – as reported by various news sources and the UNHCR – were carried out with methods that were often characterised by severe violence, so much so that one survivor claimed that at least one young man was shot dead while trying to avoid capture. On 8 October 2021, the guards of the Ghout Al-Shaal camp, on the outskirts of Tripoli, did not hesitate to open fire against migrants, in bursts and at eye level, in an apparent attempt to foil a mass escape. UNHCR reports that at least six people died and about 25 were injured, some of whom suffered very grievous injuries. In 2021, the Libyan Coast Guard blocked – note the terminology, ‘blocked’ and not ‘saved and rescued’ – 27,041 migrants at sea who had managed to escape from Libya. Most were taken back to the suffering in detention centres. Another 7,865 people were arrested on land prior to boarding a boat or at the border along the roads leading to the coast. And 353 people were forcibly returned back to Libya, at the request of Tripoli, by commercial ships that intercepted them at sea. All in all, in 2021, 35,259 people were prevented from seeking help and asylum in Europe, an inalienable right enshrined in human rights law – a right which is repeatedly upheld and was just recently reconfirmed by a significant decision of the Italian Constitutional Court. The case was brought forward by a young Senegalese man who had been detained and tortured in Libya for a long time. The Court established that migrants who passed through Libyan prisons must be granted protection. Just like this Senegalese man, all those who lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea also had a right to protection. Yet, more and more, the use of visible or invisible walls combined with indifference has denied victims their rights and contributed towards making the Mediterranean an open cemetery and the deadliest border on earth. The Mediterranean Sea is becoming ‘Mare Vostrum’ (your sea), filled with ‘Sangue Nostrum’ (our blood). As a response to all this, on Friday 22 October 2021, a protest organised by refugees, migrants and asylum seekers took place in Rome in front of the Libyan embassy. Leaving aside Libya’s specific responsibilities, which I don’t want to minimise, all this is the direct result of the policies of closure and pushbacks established through a series of bilateral treaties and agreements signed with Libya, particularly by Italy, but with the full support of the European Union. Brussels as well as Rome bear responsibility for these atrocities. An example of this is the latest Italy-Libya Memorandum signed in February 2017, or the supply of funds, vehicles, ships, training and assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard and the Government of Tripoli by the Italian government. Yet another example are the Italian ‘guarantees’ for the establishment of the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone, formally recognised since June 2018 despite the fact that Tripoli does not have any of the requisites necessary to manage, coordinate and conduct search and rescue operations at sea. To the extent that one harbours the suspicion that the directives and operational provisions are, in reality, issued by the Italian Navy and the Frontex agency. A radical revision of the policy so far adopted by the European Union in general and by individual states in particular is all the more necessary. It is good that, in October 2021, the European Commission rejected the funding request of as many as twelve member states to build physical walls at borders, even though one cannot forget that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has built over 1,200 kilometres of concrete walls and barbed wire at its external borders. However, the ‘walls’ built by policies of rigid closure are just as cruel and lethal as physical ones made of sharp steel blades, if not more. For change to happen, the first step must be a strong warning to Libya to put an end to the violence and call those responsible to answer for it. Above all, Libya must start respecting the fundamental human rights of migrants on their territory. This is even more pertinent because the recent wave of arrests appears to constitute an attempt at a forced mass repatriation, without considering that for many this will mean returning to situations of danger and severe crisis from which they had originally fled. The real and definitive solution, however, is the abandonment of the policies of closure and pushbacks pursued for years by the European Union and particularly by Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain. A European policy that from the 2014 Khartoum Process onwards elevated Libya to the ‘gendarme of the Mediterranean’, tasked with blocking migrants who would like to seek asylum from Europe’s democratic countries. This blockade is to be implemented at all costs, often conducted with indiscriminate collective violence and pushbacks and, in any case, with little regard for the fate that awaits thousands of desperate people confined behind the walls of Fortress Europe, in direct contradiction to obligations under international law, the ‘law of the sea’ and the EU’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Government of Malta has even accused three young men, the El Hiblu 3, of hijacking and terrorism. But they did not threaten anyone, their resistance was an exercise of a sacrosanct right. It is a right that has been just recently recognised by the Italian Court of Cassation, on 16 December 2021, when in a similar case, known as the Vos Thalassa case, the Italian Court recognised the ‘right’ of people to resist being returned to Libya. The Court claimed that this was legitimate defence, therefore introducing the idea of a ‘right to stop their return’. The three young men were only exercising their ‘right to stop their return’ to Libya, to stop their return to the place where their fundamental rights had been trampled upon, where they endured violence and suffering. By resisting, the El Hiblu 3 defended what was their own right – the right not to be sent back. The rights of the most vulnerable should not be weak rights!