Analysis: Europe must open its eyes and heart to help migrants facing persecution in Libya

Helene Flautre (R) is a leading figure in parliamentary campaign. Picture: Getty
Helene Flautre (R) is a leading figure in parliamentary campaign. Picture: Getty
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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 Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.

As in all situations of 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.

From the outset of the conflict on 17 February 2011, migrants were targets of violence and abuse, causing hundreds of thousands to flee. But as Libya rebuilds, it 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 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 in airless, cramped cells, suffering 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 by the International Federation for Human Rights, Migreurop and Justice without borders for migrants (JWBM), based on an investigation in Libya in June, during which hundreds of migrants held in eight detention centres in Tripoli, Benghazi and the Nafusa Mountains were interviewed.

The European Union and its members have thus 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 West African migrants have no intention of continuing on 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 in Europe. EU states must stop burying their heads in the sand and offer them opportunities for resettlement so that they can benefit from effective and lasting protection.

As the new Libyan government takes its place 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 human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Any future agreement must be conditional on the respect by all parties of international obligations and migrants’ rights as Libya stabilises, the country and once again relies on migrant workers to rebuild its economy. Foreign companies, many European, will resume their investments in Libya which will become a hub of intra-African migration. The EU must contribute to this mobility by developing a more flexible visa policy and by not forcing Libya to readmit non-nationals. In June, 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 article is by Hélène Flautre MEP, France, Greens-European Free Alliance, and Edward McMillan Scott MEP, UK Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, vice-president of the European Parliament and is endorsed by 31 MEPs.