EU’s deal with armed groups puts migrants and locals in danger

The EU is paying former human smugglers to stop the flow of migrants. Now, they're under attack.

Migrants are seen behind the bars of a window at a detention center for migrants, in the village of Karareem, around 50 km from Misrata, Libya. CREDIT: Manu Brabo/AP Photo
Migrants are seen behind the bars of a window at a detention center for migrants, in the village of Karareem, around 50 km from Misrata, Libya. CREDIT: Manu Brabo/AP Photo

The European Union’s scheme to keep migrants and refugees in Libya is hitting a major glitch in the wildly insecure North African country. Reuters reports that an armed group in Sabratha — one among those being paid to stop migrant boats under an Italian-brokered deal — has been under attack for the past two weeks. Dozens have been injured and hundreds have been displaced from the port city 79 miles west of the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

The Anas al-Dabbashi brigade (named after the commander, Ahmed al-Dabbashi, AKA “Al-Ammu” or “The Uncle”), reports Reuters, came under attack by human smugglers from nearby al-Wadi. Then again, this chaos — with more sure to come — was predictable. In its August report on Libya, the U.N. Security Council described the country as “highly volatile.” The report did little to ease concern for the safety of migrants and refugees there:

Migrants continued to be subjected by smugglers, traffickers, members of armed groups and security forces to extreme violence; torture and other ill-treatment; forced labour; arbitrary deprivation of liberty; rape; and other sexual violence and exploitation. On 11 April 2017, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) denounced the presence of slave markets in Libya, where sub-Saharan migrants were bought and sold and women were traded as sex slaves.

The International Office for Migration (IOM) noted that migrant crossings from Libya started dropping in July — great news for the European Union, which has been striking deals with Turkey, Libya, and Egypt to just keep migrants off European shores. It is, however, horrific news for the migrants and refugees, who, especially in Libya, are trapped in dangerous circumstances.

Rights groups, humanitarian agencies, and even the United Nations — which backs the government in Tripoli (one of three operating in Libya) — have sounded the alarm over the treatment of migrants at the hands of both smugglers and those running the country’s 40 migrant detention centers. The U.N. Security Council’s report includes briefing from the United Nation’s Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which visited several of those detention centers:

UNSMIL visited detention centres under the control of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration in Gharyan, Tripoli, Misrata and Surman, where thousands of migrants have been held arbitrarily for prolonged periods of time with no possibility to challenge the legality of their detention. UNSMIL had documented … cases of torture, ill-treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence. Detention centres remained overcrowded, and detainees were often malnourished, living in poor hygienic conditions and with limited or no access to medical care.

While the armed groups in Libya have been open about being paid by Italy, the Italian authorities have repeatedly denied that they’ve paid former smugglers, such as the al-Dabbashi brigade, to help them turn migrant boats around. The European Union is not the first to engage this tactic: Australia faced condemnation from rights groups when it was reported that it paid smugglers to turn migrant boats away from its shores in 2015.

The European Union earlier on Wednesday announced a plan to resettle 50,000 migrants, among them those now in Libya, in Europe. But the scheme will take two years. And that number is relatively tiny, given that, according to IOM estimates, there are somewhere between 700,000 to 1 million migrants currently in Libya, where the security situation in Libya is beyond precarious. In addition to a government that has failed to secure legitimacy throughout the country, there is an ongoing fight to boot self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) fighters out of the country.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that ISIS fighters have managed to form an army of at least three brigades on the outskirts of Sirte. They were recently chased out of the city after a series of U.S.-supported airstrikes, but apparently, hundreds managed to escape, and have been attacking local forces in recent weeks. This is happening roughly 450 miles east of Tripoli.

But there’s more chaos still along the country’s coastline, all the way to its border with Egypt, where on Thursday, Egypt launched airstrikes targeting a convoy of trucks it said was carrying arms and fighters. The trucks were headed into Egypt, where authorities say ISIS fighters coming in from Libya have been gathering in the restive Sinai Peninsula and moving to other parts of the country.