The July 25 shipwreck of a migrant boat that left at least 115 dead as of reports from July 27, represents the latest illustration of the never-ending humanitarian crisis taking place in the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants attempt to reach Europe from Libyan shores. According to the latest reports, several dinghies departed from the port city of al-Khoms in western Libya before capsizing approximately 8 kilometres off Libyan shores. At least 323 additional survivors were brought back to detention centres after being rescued at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard.
While the number of people attempting to reach Europe has considerably decreased, from an average of 150,000 arrivals in Italy between 2014-2016 to 20,000 in 2018, the journeys have become considerably more dangerous, with scenes as the above becoming a routine off Libyan shores. The main reason behind this dramatic decrease is the collaboration between the European Union (EU), particularly Italy with the Libyan authorities, where the latter are responsible for preventing migrants from departing towards Europe. This is done firstly by tackling migration routes and more importantly, by commanding the Libyan Coast Guard to patrol their territorial waters and seize and detain any migrant ship attempting to reach Europe illegally.
This strategy is part of a broader plan to curtail migration to the EU, particularly following the scores of Syrian refugees that reached the community in 2015 leading to an outcry by wide sectors within member states, especially those most affected by migration like Italy. Many scholars have baptised this plan as “Fortress Europe”, which consists of expanding the EU borders in terms of security and policing, in order to clamp down on migration both in the Sahel and the Sahara region even before migrants reach Europe. In this sense, the EU has spent billions in aid on countries that are the main transit hubs for migration like Niger and Libya in order to, in other words, “absorb these migration waves”, by tackling trafficking networks and detaining migrants in EU-funded detention facilities in those countries.
This anti-migration strategy has had a huge backlash among humanitarian organisations, who question the morality and even legality of these measures. Indeed, said questions have only risen since the Italian government prevented the operation of rescue operations by international NGOs at sea in 2018, with many wondering how an institution as the EU that pretends to be a beacon of civility and human rights allows people to die at sea?
Data gathered by international institutions strongly suggests that since the establishment of the collaboration with the Libyan authorities, the attempts to cross the Mediterranean have become considerably deadlier, as migrants take longer and more dangerous routes to avoid detection. In this context, as of mid-2018, the percentage of people that either died or disappeared at sea from those taking the journey rose to 9.8% of the total, from an average of approximately 3% in previous years.
Bearing in mind that more than 300 people already lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean this year, the question that remains is what is the human cost that has to be paid before the international community and especially the EU take multi-faceted measures in order to tackle the crisis?
The alleged Libya National Army (LNA) airstrike on 2 July against a migrant detention facility in Tajoura that left at least 50 people killed and close to a hundred injured represents a dire illustration of the risk faced by migrants and asylum seekers amid the ongoing Libyan armed conflict. Indeed, according to many accounts by multiple independent sources, the detention facility, 16 kilometres east of Tripoli, was located adjacent to a military compound and only 90 meters from a weapons storage used by militias. Moreover, these same sources indicate that United Nations agencies had long warned Government of National Accord (GNA) affiliates not to keep weapons next to these facilities.
According to additional sources, the storage of weapons and other military supplies at detention centres represents a common strategy used by GNA-affiliated militias who run these camps. These weapons include anti-aircraft ammunition & missile systems among other items. Likewise, many migrants under the condition of anonymity have stated that they have been forced to take part in hostilities, having been forced to clean weapons among other tasks, which adds to the already concerning allegations regarding abuses and torture within these detention facilities. Together, these developments illustrate the gross human rights violations taking place in Libya by all the sides involved in the conflict. In fact, many international organisations have framed the LNA airstrike as a war crime, while also condemning the GNA over its lax oversight of its affiliated militias.
Under these conditions, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have called for the release of the migrants held in camps and their absorption into host communities while their status is been processed. As of June 2019, there are 5,378 people held in detention centres across Libya, and 4,148 of those refugees are in the security danger zone in Tripoli or in the north-west. As such, a large portion of the migrants currently being held in Libya are exposed not only to abuses but also to be targets amid the fighting. During the advance of LNA-affiliated militias in western Libya, migrants have stated how militiamen have indiscriminately shot at them during their advance on GNA positions.
Even though the remaining migrants at Tajoura were released, how many others might be trapped at facilities that are in close proximity to fighting or even used as weapons storage? Taking precedent into consideration, particularly the increase of LNA airstrikes against the capital, it is hard not to raise the question of how many refugees, who are being held with the blessing of the European Union, are actually at imminent risk of death amid the ongoing LNA campaign against Tripoli?
With over 1,000 killed since the beginning of the most recent round of fighting in April, the Libyan National Army (LNA) offensive against Tripoli seems far from over despite recent calls by its nominal international backers, particularly France & the UAE, for a diplomatic solution.
Within this setting, the recapture of the LNA forward operating base in Gharyan by Government of National Accord (GNA) forces and their allies represented not only a major setback for LNA commander General Haftar (his first significant loss), but further exposed the complex, precarious coalitions & alliances at work in the current conflict.
Consider Gharyan: local militias - ostensibly allies of the LNA - joined forces with advancing GNA combatants, resulting in the expulsion of the LNA from the town & the loss of a critical base of operations. Following the battle, a spokesperson for the LNA framed the loss as a "betrayal"; such setbacks cast doubt on the effectiveness of the clientele relationships constructed by Gen. Haftar with local power brokers & militias across Libya as he seeks to solidify his control.
This strategy hasn't been without its successes though. Consider Tarhouna: the LNA's remaining logistics hub for the Tripoli offensive. The most prominent local militia being the Seventh Brigade - initially aligned with the GNA in 2017 before heavy clashes with Haitham al-Tajuri's Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade drove them away from their former partners. Only days before the April offensive, the brigade joined with Haftar's forces following promises of lucrative security contracts following the successful conclusion of the campaign.
On the other side, the GNA has always relied on a wide array of militias & warlords, many of whom had previously fought each other prior to the beginning of the April offensive. Currently included amongst GNA-aligned forces are Islamist militias, such as Madkhali-Salafi with roughly 1,000 fighters in Tripoli, combatants from Benghazi displaced by Haftar's earlier operations, Tripoli-based gangs such as the Nawasi Brigade, and Misratan militias such as the Mahjub Brigade. In spite of the varied background of these forces, they all share a common perception that Haftar represents a return to pre-2011 Libya, amid fears that he would seek to govern as a strongman with little regard for human rights & democracy should his operation prove successful.
This fear of Haftar hasn't resulted in the creation of an ironclad partnership though. Many in the GNA also raise questions regarding the reliability of their current arrangements. Commanders have publicly accused the government of using the war to purposely exhaust their arsenals; some have sought to conserve large stocks of weapons in expectations that they would need to defend their communities or fight their former allies again. Additionally, the central role currently played by Misratan militias in the current conflict has raised concerns within GNA circles. Misratan deaths account for roughly half of all GNA losses, and some worry that the Misratans will attempt to unduly increase their political & financial influence in the capital by capitalising on this.
All things considered, the wide range of actors involved on all sides of the current conflict, and subsequently their divergent interests, has only greatly increased the volatility & complexity of the current standoff around Tripoli - all of which is only fuelling greater instability within Libya.