On November 6, 2017, a dinghy set sail from Libya, carrying 140 refugees and migrants fleeing to Italy. Like many of the flimsy vessels making the dangerous journey to Europe, this one capsized thirty miles from the north of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in international waters.
As the vessel struggled, a Libyan coast guard boat and a German NGO boat, Sea Watch, arrived on the scene, at the same time, to help victims. Some of the passengers on the Libyan boat attempted to jump off to reach the Sea Watch boat. The Libyan coast guard responded to this by “beating and threatening” fleeing passengers, according to a Sea Watch statement. Five passengers, including one child, died in the incident. In the end, Sea Watch took fifty-eight survivors to Italy, while the Libyan coast guard took the rest back to Libya.
Sea Watch and the Libyan coast guard have blamed each other for the tragic outcome of this incident. In its statement, Sea Watch accused the Libyan coast guard of “violent and reckless behavior,” quoting Sea Watch captain Pia Klemp as saying that the Libyan coast guard has no sovereign rights in international waters. In turn, the Libyan coast guard claimed that Sea Watch caused “panic and confusion,” according to Agence France-Press.
This recent tragedy highlights how politics is affecting the dire humanitarian situation facing migrants and refugees, particularly those leaving for Europe from Libya’s shores. People fleeing from conflict, hardship, and abuse have paid dearly for European policies aimed at curbing migration. In the Libyan context, those policies have incentivized the Libyan government to pursue migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean, and return them to Libya.
On February 2, 2017, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj signed a deal with Italy, affirming cooperation between the two countries to stem migration from Libya, and reportedly offering Libya 200 million euros to that end. A day later, the European Union released the Malta Declaration, which includes a plan for curbing migration through initiatives such as training for the Libyan coast guard and providing it with new equipment such as boats, so it can patrol and capture boats leaving from Libya. The Malta Declaration also committed 200 million euros to support these initiatives. The separate Italy-Libya agreement is seen as a “stand-alone agreement,” that fits into the wider EU Declaration, according to the Libya Herald.
From the middle of July to September 2017, these agreements with the European Union and Italy appeared to reduce refugee and migrant arrivals to Italy by 87 percent, though numbers now appear to be on the rise.
The Libyan government has contracted with militias – an estimated 1700 have risen to power in post-Gaddafi Libya – to bring back vessels before they reach international waters. The arrangement is highly problematic since many militias are also involved in human trafficking. Although Italy has publicly denied supporting Libya’s deal with these militias, accounts from militia spokespeople, security officials, and activists in Libya have described meetings between Italian officials and militia leaders.
For those migrants and refugees who are returned to Libya, the future is grim. Often, returnees are held indefinitely in what non-profit news agency IRIN refers to as “nominally official” detention centers, reportedly rife with violence, exploitation, sexual abuse, torture, and forced labor. They also face the risk of being held at unofficial detention centers run by traffickers and militias.
Just under a month ago, a spokesperson for the United High Commissioner for Refugees, Andrej Mahecic, reported that there were 20,500 refugees and migrants held in official and unofficial detention centers in Sabratha, a coastal Libyan city commonly referred to as Libya’s smuggling hub. He added, “the devastation in Sabratha…highlights the high price refugees have to pay to reach safety in the absence of safe legal pathways.”