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26th Nov 2022

Libya: hounding of migrants must stop

  • The post-Gaddafi militias have a frightening track record (Photo: Martin Beek)

Nearly a year after the conflict in Libya, the central authorities are struggling to exert their control over the various factions that contributed to overthrowing the dictator.

As in all situations of political and social instability, the most vulnerable face the most serious threats. And in today's Libya, even more so than under Gaddafi, migrants, particularly those from sub Saharan Africa, are paying a heavy price.

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From the outset of the Libyan conflict on 17 February 2011, migrants were particular targets of violence and abuse, causing hundreds of thousands of them to flee the country.

But as the country rebuilds itself, Libya is once again a major destination for migrants from sub Saharan Africa, trying to escape persecution and find work.

Yet in today's Libya, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees find themselves hounded by groups of former rebels (Katibas), acting outside any legal framework in a context of deep-rooted racism, who have assigned themselves the task of "ridding the country of migrants who bring crime and disease."

Migrants are arrested at checkpoints and in their homes and taken to improvised detention centres, run by Katibas, where they are held for indefinite periods in airless and insalubrious cells, suffering physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the guards.

They have no idea whether and when they may regain their freedom.

These are some of the findings of a new report issued by the International Federation for Human Rights, Migreurop and Justice without borders for migrants (JWBM), based on an investigation in Libya in June 2012, during which the delegation interviewed hundreds of migrants held in eight detention centres in Tripoli, Benghazi and the Nafusa Mountain region.

The European Union and its member states have so far appeared to ignore these grave abuses and seem to be determined to repeat the errors of the past, persisting with a closed border policy and continuing to finance detention centres on the other side of the Mediterranean.

The testimonies of those interviewed confirm that the vast majority of migrants from neighbouring countries and elsewhere in West Africa have no intention of continuing their journeys to Europe. They want to find work in Libya.

Only those fleeing conflicts in the Horn of Africa, seeking the international protection to which they are legally entitled, plan to leave Libya (which has not ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and has no asylum system).

It is these potential refugees who, in desperation, embark on unseaworthy vessels in attempts to find asylum on the European continent.

EU countries must stop burying their heads in the sand and offer these refugees opportunities for resettlement on their territory so that they can benefit from effective and lasting protection.

As the new Libyan government finds its feet and Europe negotiates new co-operation agreements, the EU must stop dealing with migration solely from a security perspective and must promote measures to ensure the protection of the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Any future agreement must be conditioned, not on fighting irregular immigration, but on the respect by all parties of international obligations and migrants' rights.

These issues are all the more urgent since, as the situation in Libya stabilises, the country will once again rely on migrant workers to rebuild and develop its economy.

Foreign companies, many of them European, will resume their investments in Libya and the country will become a hub of intra-African migration. The EU must contribute to this mobility with ambition and responsibility, including by developing a more flexible visa policy and by not forcing Libya to readmit non-nationals.

On 25 June 2012, the Council of the European Union pledged to promote human rights "in all areas of external action, without exception." Will its migration policy be an exception?

This op-ed was written by Fidh, a Paris-based rights NGO, in association with 33 MEPs

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