Why the EU Is Deeply Responsible for Major Humanitarian Crisis


The European Union is using funding as leverage to pressure African states to crackdown on Eritrean migrants and refugees, thereby preventing them from reaching European shores, a new report from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) finds. This “externalization” of the EU’s borders is predicated on trapping Eritreans in conditions where they are subject to torture, rape, trafficking, killings and the trauma of watching others die before them.

Over the past five years, those escaping violence, forced conscription, torture, arbitrary detention and poverty in Eritrea have faced fewer options for passage, due to the U.S.-backed war in Yemen and the walls and fences choking off migration to Israel. As a result, individuals are forced to flee via Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya. Those who reach Libya often attempt to cross the Central Mediterranean to Europe. In 2016, Eritreans constituted the second-largest group of people crossing the body of water next to Nigerians, the report notes.

Each leg of the journey begets almost indescribable violence and persecution, MSF determined, based on 106 in-depth interviews with Eritrean migrants and refugees, as well as information from experts, authorities and other humanitarian groups.

“Every Eritrean interviewed by MSF teams on its search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea has reported being either a direct victim or a witness to severe levels of violence, including torture, in multiple locations throughout their harrowing journey from Eritrea to Europe,” states the report, which was released February 27. “Every Eritrean interviewed has reported being held in captivity of some kind, while over half have reported seeing fellow refugees, asylum seekers or migrants die, most often as the result of violence.”

Sexual assault and trauma are ubiquitous. “Every Eritrean woman interviewed by MSF has either directly experienced, or knows someone who has experienced, sexual violence, including rape, often inflicted by multiple perpetrators,” the report states. “In MSF’s clinics, Eritreans arrive with heavy scarring, wounds and other medical conditions, including severe psychological illness, that are consistent with their testimonies.”

The findings are buttressed by a separate UNICEF report released February 28, which found that “Refugee and migrant children and women are routinely suffering sexual violence, exploitation, abuse and detention along the Central Mediterranean migration route from North Africa to Italy.”

While attempting to cross the border from Eritrea and Ethiopia, one risks being shot by Eritrean border guards. A 19-year-old Eritrean woman in Tigray, Ethiopia described her ordeal to MSF researchers in June 2016:

We were four in total, all young. We spent the day hiding in an underground place until nightfall. After dark, we continued our journey by help of the moon. We walked for a long time and reached the border. There was a fence of bushes. The military guards were asleep so we made a gap in the fence. We tried to be quiet. ‘Stop!’ the military said. We ran fast. We were so afraid and didn’t know the place, the stones, the river. The military ran after us for a while, but then stopped. We didn’t believe it and thought we were still being followed. After a while we heard dogs and chickens and hoped we had reached Ethiopia. We waited in the dark under a tree. A hyena came. In the morning we started walking and reached a reception center. Looking towards the fields we had come from, we saw three other Eritreans crossing. They were shot at. I watched one person die. Another was shot in the foot.

According to MSF, “In Sudan, Eritreans face the possibility of being forcibly returned to Eritrea, while in Ethiopia they struggle to subsist without work or education opportunities. For many Eritreans, putting themselves in the hands of smugglers and heading to Europe via the Sahara desert and Libya remains the only option.”

“Once in Libya, Eritreans and others face abuse at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, armed groups, militias and security officers,” the report continues. “Torture and violence, including sexual violence, is ‘as common as eating a meal.’”

One 27-year-old Eritrean man told researchers on board the Aquarius search and rescue vessel in July 2016 of his escape from Libya:

They would tie us upside down by our ankles and beat the bottom of our feet. This place was run by Libyans, but smugglers from different countries were coming and going. The abuse is unbearable. We are slaves in their eyes. They sell us, often in groups of 15. Nigerians and Ghanaians are sold for 600 Dinars [US$400] and Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians for US$2,000. One day a group of men came to the prison. At first we thought they were police or ‘buyers’, but when they got closer they covered their faces in black scarves. They started to fight with the men managing the prison. Many bullets were fired. Seven people were killed. I wanted to escape. After seven months, I was sold to a Libyan man, but another man came and stole me and a few others after only a few days. All he fed us was three dates per day. We were so desperate that we decided it would be better to die while trying to escape than to live like we did. We ran and ran, until we found a watermelon farm. We ate some for energy. An elderly Libyan man gave us some bread and drew a map in the sand showing the way to Tripoli.

Large numbers of refugees and migrants are subjected to degradations. In the new UNICEF report, researchers recorded 256,000 migrants in Libya, including 23,102 children. UNICEF finds one third of those children are unaccompanied.

Using funding as leverage to offshore humanitarian crisis

State authorities, as well as extra-state organizations and individuals, are some of the greatest perpetrators of this violence. According to MSF, the EU is directly bankrolling government forces participating in this crackdown. “Primarily the EU’s approach involves setting up agreements with refugee producing and transit countries to stem migration in exchange for funding,” the report explains.

A statement released in 2016 by the European Commission reads, “Standing ready to provide greater support to those partner countries which make the greatest efforts, but without shying away from negative incentives, EU assistance and policies should be tailored to produce concrete results in stemming the flow of irregular migrants.”

In November 2015, following the Valletta Summit in Malta, Ethiopia signed to receive funding from the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. According to MSF, “In exchange for the money, Ethiopia is expected to strengthen its asylum system, provide support for a regional border control system, and facilitate the readmission of migrants and ‘failed’ asylum seekers from Europe.”

In practice, MSF determines, the accord has led to punishing policies. “According to testimonies collected by MSF on the Mediterranean Sea, since the deal came into effect, it has become harder for Eritreans to leave Ethiopia and seek asylum elsewhere due to tighter exit controls en route,” the report states.

A January 2016 agreement between the EU and Eritrea struck a similar note. Under a five-year assistance agreement, “funding is allocated for energy, governance and economic development, emphasizing the need to address the root causes of Eritrean migration to Europe,” MSF writes.

Perhaps most harrowing is the EU’s collaboration with Libya, where NATO’s 2011 military intervention played a critical role in unleashing the human rights abuses sweeping the country today. The report states:

In February 2017 the Italian government announced a Memorandum of Understanding with the Libyan government and the EU reinitiated its will to collaborate with Libya to stem irregular flows of people along the Central Mediterranean route and to break the business model of human smugglers and traffickers, collaboration with the Libyan “authorities” and the Libyan coastguard; and strengthening the national legal framework. While the EU presents the training and support to the Libyan coastguard as a measure to save lives, elsewhere it has described the training as a measure to “prevent illegal sea crossings.” By providing resources (training, equipment and support) to help Libya prevent refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from leaving the country, and to intercept them at sea only to return them to Libyan detention centers, the EU is directly enabling the prolonged suffering of Eritreans and other people on the move.

At the same time, the EU is only admitting a tiny fraction of the world’s displaced peoples. According to MSF, it has failed to resettle a single Eritrean person in 2016.

The cruelty of these policy shows no sign of abatement. In a recent interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, Fabrice Leggeri, who leads the EU border agency Frontex, recently denounced humanitarian organizations that rescue refugees near the coast of Libya. "We must avoid supporting the business of criminal networks and traffickers in Libya through European vessels picking up migrants ever closer to the Libyan coast,” he said.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 485 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean in 2017 alone. UNICEF calculates that in 2016, at least 4,579 perished braving the voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean, at least 700 of them children. This means that one out of every 40 people who attempted to cross died during the journey.

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