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Story Publication logo December 21, 2017

Keeping Refugees in Africa

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A series on Europe’s controversial "pay-to-stay" effort to fight migration at its source.

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Migrants whose boat was intercepted by the Libyan navy wait to be given shoes before they can be moved to a detention center in Tripoli. Image by Peter Tinti. Libya, 2017.
Migrants whose boat was intercepted by the Libyan navy wait to be given shoes before they can be moved to a detention center in Tripoli. Image by Peter Tinti. Libya, 2017.

Note: this story was originally published in Dutch for De Correspondent.


“I just want to know if I had a boy or girl,” said Abdullah Bashir Umar, a slight man in his early 30s, with a calm demeanor and expressive eyes. Umar says he came to Libya legally from his native Niger almost a decade ago, back when the government of Muammar Qaddafi tacitly encouraged labor migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya. Despite the fact that he never had any intention of boarding a boat to Europe, Umar had been detained for weeks in a filthy cell with a dozen other migrants from West Africa. They spent their days caged in a dimly lit box with a rotting ceiling overhead, playing checkers on a set made from scraps of cardboard. They passed the night willing themselves to sleep on mattresses infested with bed bugs. As of that day, Umar had not been able to contact his wife, 8 months pregnant at the time of his arrest.

Umar, it turned out, is collateral damage, caught in the dragnet of the counter-migration machine funded by Europe and carried out by militias loyal to Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. The fact that Umar’s cellmates are locked up indefinitely in Libya and not on a boat to Europe is a success story in the eyes of EU policymakers.

As bad as it is being locked away indefinitely, Umar can at least take solace in having not been sold into slavery. While reports by human rights organizations and the United Nations had previously highlighted the existence of “open air” slave auctions in which Libyan businessmen purchase African migrants to work on farms and construction projects, it was not until CNN obtained footage of such auctions, in which young men were sold into slavery for only a few hundred dollars, that the plight of migrants in Libya garnered sustained international attention. In the days following the CNN report, both the United Nations Security Council and the African Union held sessions to address the issue.

How did it get this far?

Since 2014, more than 500,000 migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have reached Italy via North Africa along what aid and government agencies call the “Central Mediterranean Route.” The vast majority of migrants taking this route, which also includes departure points in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, embark from Libya. In 2016, more than 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy via the Central Mediterranean. The UN’s migration agency has recorded over 13,000 deaths via the Central Mediterranean since 2014.

When I was in Libya in May, government officials there anticipated that the number of migrants making the journey in 2017 would surpass the previous record set in 2016. In fact, in May and June of this year, arrivals had eclipsed previous highs for those months, set in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

Yet in July and August, when migrant departures from Libya historically reach their annual peak, arrivals from Libya plummeted.

Policymakers in Europe, desperate to show that they are making progress in curbing irregular migration, were quick to credit their own policies. Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as Vice-President of the European Commission, told the European Parliament that “the measures we have finally, finally, started to put in place are starting to show the first results.”

As part of its efforts to stem irregular migration from Africa to Europe, the European Union has pledged €136 million to train and equip the Libyan coast guard and to fund detention facilities where migrants are warehoused before they are deported back to their countries of origin. Individual EU member states have earmarked tens of millions of dollars more, and these efforts in Libya take place within the context of a €2.9 billion EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa which in addition to offering humanitarian aid and development assistance in “source” countries where migrants come from, also supports transit countries, such as Niger and Sudan, in bolstering their border security to prevent irregular migration.

Yet few experts believe that the drop in migrant arrivals seen this summer is the product of European investments in development or building local policing capacity. Rather, they are the result of specific deals that Italy has cut with local militias and migrant smuggling networks in western Libya, which in practical terms, has meant migrants locked-up indefinitely, held for ransom, and in some cases, sold into slavery.

Libya is currently divided by two main rival governments, one in the capital city of Tripoli and another in the eastern city of Tobruk, with vast swaths of territory controlled by a patchwork of militias with ever-shifting alliances, as well as the Islamic State. Without an effective central government to work with on migration, European governments, and Italy in particular, have gone in search of new partners on the ground.

“It’s pretty clear that certain militias have been co-opted,” said Mark Micallef, a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, who follows migrant smuggling networks in Libya and regularly conducts fieldwork in migrant smuggling hubs. “Militias that have been deeply involved in smuggling have turned to policing.” According to Micallef, various groups in western Libya that were either directly involved in smuggling, or were allowing smugglers to operate within the areas they control, have cracked down on smuggling within their territory. But the real reason behind the dramatic drop in numbers, Micallef says, is that groups which were previously not working together, and were even rivals, are now collaborating to limit departures.

Sources in Libya, as well as analysts abroad, point to Italy's Minister of Interior, Marco Minniti, as the man behind an uptick in support for Libya's coastguard and certain militias' decision to go from migrant smuggling to policing. Dubbed by The New York Times as Italy's "Lord of Spies," Minniti's dispassionate pragmatism and penchant for finding ways to solve seemingly intractable problems are often attributed to his previous career as an intelligence operative.

Even in his current role, before he was cutting deals with militias and smugglers on the Libyan coast, Minniti was reaching out to tribesman in southern Libya in an effort to seal Libya’s southern border with Niger, the main gateway linking sub-Saharan Africa to Libya. “Minniti was appointed in late 2016, and by early 2017 he had invited these southern leaders to Rome,” said Luca Raineri, a Research Fellow at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa who specializes in the geopolitics of the Sahara and Sahel. Raineri notes that it was the Ministry of Interior, rather than the Foreign Ministry, that was making these overtures, including setting aside €6 million for mayors in southern Libya. The agreement with southern leaders didn’t take hold, for a variety of reasons, but it did signal that Minniti would play a central role in Italy’s efforts to curb migrant flows, and that Italy was willing to work with anyone who could help stem the flow of migrants from Africa to Europe.

Fast forward to this summer, and direct collaboration with militias on the Libyan coast has clearly come to fruition. “Minniti is very closely linked to Italian Security Services and Italian Security Services are very well-connected in Libya,” Raineri explained. “So they probably know exactly what they need to pay the main smuggling groups to make this worth their while.” For his part, Minniti has defended Italy’s migrant deal in the face of harsh criticism from humanitarian and human rights groups, as well as the UN, which described the deal as "inhuman." 

There are several channels through which Italy and the EU can funnel their support to various actors in Libya.

  • The first is direct payments to militias and migrant smugglers, or through intermediaries such as local NGOs, or local mayors and tribal leaders who can negotiate terms with local armed groups.
  • The second, is giving money to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), who in turn funnels cash to militias that are nominally under the Ministry of Interior, but who operate with almost complete autonomy. By using the GNA as a go-between, Italy and Europe can distance themselves from claims that they are providing direct support to various actors that are known to be directly involved in human rights abuses, including human trafficking.

The EU’s current approach in Libya is an attempt to replicate its current deal with Turkey, made in 2016, which seeks to externalize EU borders by paying the government of Turkey to block irregular migrants and asylum seekers from arriving in Europe in the first place. Rather than address any of the actual drivers of irregular migration and displacement, the EU-Turkey deal merely outsources the legal and humanitarian imperatives to Turkey, thus allowing Europe to keep its own hands clean while the crisis festers abroad.

While no European policymaker would explicitly state this component of EU policy in such terms, the realities are not lost on government officials in transit states, including Libya. “Europe wants to use Libya as its Berlin Wall to divide Africa from Europe,” Ayoub Qassem, spokesperson for the Libyan Navy, told me when I was last in Libya. “Europe wants to keep its human rights trademark and keep its own reputation clean.”

As a result, migrants have become a commodity that actors in Libya, including militias allied with Libya’s UN-backed government, capture, sell, trade and leverage migrants, as part of a “detention and deportation industrial complex” that is underwritten by the European Union and individual member states in order to prevent migrants from ever reaching Europe. On paper, these policies read as though migrants are being saved at sea and returned to their homes. In practice, as I recently reported, they are warehoused in squalid conditions, caged in overcrowded cells, and held indefinitely against their will until they can either pay a ransom, are sold to traffickers, purchased by smugglers who in turn extort and abuse them, or are repatriated with the assistance of the UN’s migration agency.

The CNN report on slavery in Libya, however, seems to have finally sparked enough outrage among African leaders to prompt the African Union to agree to an emergency plan to repatriate as many as 700,000 migrants from Libya, with the support of the EU and UN.

Yet with migrants still arriving in Libya, and Italy and the EU signaling a willingness to work with whomever can do the job, various armed groups are lining up to prove themselves as indispensable partners in Europe’s fight to block migrants and asylum seekers from transiting through Libya. In addition to patronage, these groups also seek to translate their de facto power into formal recognition and legitimacy. “This process of militias seeking and craving legitimacy is not a new phenomenon,” explained Mark Micallef, referencing the fact that outside actors have regularly cut deals with militias in Libya since the 2011 revolution in order to counter terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and to guard oil and gas installations in various parts of the country. “We are paying attention now because it is human smuggling,” he continued.

The strategy of working directly with militias in the pursuit of a single, narrow interest, such as stemming migration or countering terrorism, also risks exacerbating the ongoing conflict in Libya. Whereas any long-term solution to managing mixed migration from Africa to Europe requires a stable Libya with a viable government, current EU approaches may actually be undermining the prospects of a peace agreement and state-building. “There are so many moving parts when it comes to militias, it is inherently unstable,” Micallef explained. “Since the revolution, militias have coopted with one goal in mind, and then there are a million and one consequences,” he continued. Even in Sabratha, a key hub of migrant smuggling activity since 2015 that has gone mostly dormant in July and August, since Italy made arrangements with local smugglers, there has been an eruption in violence, in part because rival groups sense a possible change in local balances in power.

“Right now Sabratha is on fire,” Micallef said. “I have not seen anything like this [in Sabratha] since the revolution.” In fact, by early October, the militia with whom Italy cut a deal to stop smuggling, had been pushed out of Sabratha by a rival group.

Although European policymakers are citing the sharp decline in arrivals as evidence of effective policy, if history is any guide, the status quo is likely to prove unsustainable. While current measures are aimed at stemming specific flows along certain routes, they do not address the drivers of irregular migration and displacement. “Given these systemic conditions, you have a good chance that the smugglers will adapt to whatever policies the EU imposes. The drop in crossings is likely to be short-lived,” said Charles Heller, who follows migrant departures from Libya as part of the Forensic Oceanography project at Goldsmiths (University of London). In fact, both Heller and Micallef note that while departures have declined from the key smuggling hub of Sabratha, where Italy reportedly cut a deal with local actors, other locations in Western Libya have emerged, or in some cases reemerged, as key departure points for migrant boats. “It’s a testament to the adaptability of these [smuggling] networks,” Heller said.

Europe is playing a similarly dangerous game in Niger, Libya’s neighbor to the south through which the vast majority of migrants from West Africa transit in order to reach Libya. By September of 2016, the number of migrants that the UN’s migration agency detected passing along the main route through Niger to Libya fell dramatically in part due to a crackdown by local authorities in the key smuggling hub of Agadez. What is less clear, however, is the extent to which flows have been reduced so much as they have been displaced. The UN’s migration agency, for example, estimates that as many as 6,000 migrants per month are still passing through Niger.

Yet because the EU encouraged crackdown in Niger does not address any of the drivers of irregular migration in the first place, the practical effect has been to push the migrant smuggling industry into the shadows. What was widely considered one of the most dangerous migrant smuggling routes in the world has become more dangerous as a result. Smugglers are now transporting migrants along more dangerous routes through the Sahara in order to avoid detection by the Nigerien authorities, exposing migrants to greater risks, and abandoning migrants in the middle of the desert upon being seen by local security forces.

Rather than stem flows from north Africa to Europe, the crackdown in Niger has displaced them, with new routes outside of Niger being reinvigorated, particularly in neighboring Mali, Niger’s neighbor to the west, and Chad, Niger’s neighbor to the east. Migrants are now finding new ways to enter Libya, or bypassing it altogether, seeking departure points to Europe from Tunisia and Algeria instead.

The increased border patrol and restriction on movement in Niger, however, not only affects migrants and smugglers. Rather, it has had a considerable impact on entire communities for whom mobility and seasonal migration is a lifeline and a resilience strategy in the face of increasing economic hardship. The Nigerien government has gone at great length in recent years to maintain a delicate political and security equilibrium in the country’s north, and this precarious balance is in part predicated on allowing these communities to sustain themselves through facilitating the movement of goods and people within the region, and to seek trade and employment across borders. Yet greater border control and restrictions on mobility have made such opportunities harder to pursue.

Furthermore, and as I have argued before, efforts to curb irregular migration through Niger might actually be at odds with the longer-term goals of development and stability there. The EU has managed to convince the Nigerien government to pursue certain policies in exchange for aid and assistance, but this does not change the fact that what is taking place in Niger is a policy intervention driven by outside imperatives. As with any intervention, there are going to be negative consequences, both anticipated and unforeseen, which is why actually addressing the drivers of migration in source countries is the only viable solution to managing migration from Africa to Europe.

The EU is in fact coupling its short-term measures with long term projects such as development aid in “source” countries in sub-Saharan Africa in order to address some of the underlying drivers of migration. Yet studies by economists and migration experts indicate that net migration from these countries is likely to increase as they transition from low to middle income. It is only until these countries reach a certain level of economic development that migration rates level off and decline.

Since many of the issues outlined above are well-known to European policymakers, it is worth asking to what extent the powers that be in Brussels and Rome are even looking for sustainable, humane ways to manage irregular migration. According to Raineri, the goal behind Italy’s most recent tactics is not solve the migration crisis, but to reduce flows until upcoming elections.

“There is a clear case that the Ministry of Interior is going to use all possible means to prevent migrants from coming into Italy until the elections,” explained Raineri. “The ruling [Democratic Party’s] party is losing consensus on this issue. They are embarrassed by this,” Raineri continued. “They have a center-left agenda, and the promotion of human rights is theoretically part of the Democratic Party’s mandate, but the polls tell them this is a losing issue.”

Put another way, Italy’s current approach toward irregular migration in Libya is, first and foremost, about domestic electoral considerations. Italy is hardly unique on this front.

Having covered what Europeans have come to call the “migrant crisis” for the last three years, I’ve lost track of how many times a policymaker has told me, in private and always with a sheepish look on his or her face, that they have to pursue problematic short term policies in order ensure that anti-immigrant parties do not takeover.

The logic, I’m always told, is that things will be much worse for migrants and refugees if someone else is in charge. It is a compelling argument up to a certain point, and European countries certainly have a right to control who enters their territory, but they also have obligations under international law. Perhaps we should dispense of the notion that Europe is trying to manage irregular migration in a sustainable and humane way.

The most sustainable approach to managing irregular migration from Africa to Europe would require opening and increasing legal channels for migration to Europe, in exchange for greater cooperation from African governments in facilitating returns of those who migrate illegally. Such an approach would by no means be a panacea, but it would allow African governments to continue to benefit from the remittances from Europe on which entire communities rely, accelerate economic development in Africa, while reducing demand for smuggler services. Doing so would require European leaders to convince voters that part of the solution to the current “crisis” is accepting tens of thousands of economic migrants from Africa through legal channels, which given the current trajectory of European politics, is an argument few European leaders are willing to make.

As a result, Europe is stuck with short term proposals that are unlikely to yield meaningful results in the medium term, and may even prove counterproductive in the long term.

You can call the current approach good politics. Just don’t call it good policy.


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