Death at sea or under the bombs: is there no other alternative for the thousands of migrants trapped in the hell of Libya?

An air strike on the Tajoura migrants’ detention centre, in the eastern suburbs of the Libyan capital city, was reported on 2 July evening. Two days later, the death toll keeps increasing with so far at least 66 dead and over 80 wounded [1] . Late April 2019 already, many migrants died in the attack of Gasr Bin Gashir by armed groups about 30km away south of Tripoli.

While the fighting between the United Nations officially recognised National Unity Government (NUG) and commander Haftar’s forced is raging, thousands of migrants detained in Libyan jails are in the frontline. If not abandoned by the guards as opposing forces get closer, or forced to enrol with one of the belligerent sides, they are regularly targeted by fighters.

In a country where migrants have long been considered a bargain chip between militias, as well as a diplomatic leverage as part of migration trading with EU Member States already under Gaddafi’s ruling [2], migrants have actually turned into one of the major elements at stake for the belligerents, way beyond the Libyan borders.

In the wake of the bombing attack on the Tajoura camp, as the NUG was accusing Haftar who himself denounced what he claimed was a conspiracy, European leaders across the Mediterranean behaved as if powerless witnesses of a tragedy; some regretted the number of victims and condemned the attack, others calling on an international enquiry to identify those guilty for it.

In the context of such hypocritical discourses, the immense responsibility of both the European Union and its Member States regarding the disastrous plight of migrants in Libya ought to be reminded. When reacting to the attacks, the European Union praised its role in protecting migrants in Libya and reiterated the need for sustained efforts in that field [3]. Should not we, instead, question whether the very action of the EU is not simply reinforcing such a cruel detention apparatus as Libya’s, e.g. by funding two international organisations such as the UNHCR and the IOM which can partly access these camps where the most serious human rights violations are perpetrated?

Beyond providing implicit support to such large-scale detention, Europe has developed numerous strategies aiming to immediately and systematically return migrants trying to escape Libya and particularly the inhuman conditions faced in detention sites over there. Especially, it has steadily reinforced the capacities of Libyan coast-guards whilst emptying the Mediterranean sea of any humanitarian support as a result of the criminalisation of NGOs providing rescue at sea [4].

On 20 June 2019, the UNHCR estimated that over 3,000 people had been intercepted by the Libyan coast-guards since the start of 2019, while barely 2,000 had reached Italy [5]. For those intercepted and returned to Libya, dark prospects are looming ahead: after being handed over to militias, only a lucky few evacuated to Niger will eventually manage to avoid detention, pending a hypothetical resettlement procedure via the UNHCR, adding to those often with no other choice – and under heavy pressure – will opt for IOM’s coordinated ‘voluntary’ return.

Voicing outrage at the attacks is dishonest from the European Union. The mass detention of migrants and human rights violations in a civil war torn country is neither tragic nor inevitable: they are the direct consequences of the externalisation policies and migration bargains which the EU and its Member States have cynically orchestrated for years. It is high time that the war on migrants stops and that all people effectively access free movement.