Inside the West's Cynical Plan to Keep Refugees out of Europe by Trapping Them in Libya

Western countries are willing to funnel arms into a war-torn country to keep refugees out of Europe.

Photo Credit: State Department/Public Domain

Western countries’ callous response to the greatest crisis of human displacement since World War II has reached new heights with the latest push to fashion—and arm—a Libyan state in part so that it can help trap refugees in that country and prevent them from reaching European shores.

European heads of state have already unleashed a brutal crackdown on people fleeing war and poverty, including through the EU’s “Operation Sophia” military force in the Mediterranean, which was established last May to prevent refugees stranded in Libya from journeying to the continent in search of sanctuary.

But a new report from the UK House of Lords concludes that, in order to effectively obstruct these refugees, Operation Sophia requires a functional Libyan state, which does not currently exist.

“Given appropriate political support in Libya—however unlikely that may be—[Operation Sophia] could, potentially, play a more useful role if able to operate in Libyan waters (Phase 2B) and onshore in Libya (Phase 3),” state the main findings of the report, which was prepared by the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee. “A Libyan government that is recognized internationally and accepted internally is a prerequisite to the future success of the mission.”

These findings echo the conclusions of a internal report published this January by Operation Sophia commander, Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino of the Italian Navy, which was leaked to the public by WikiLeaks in February.

“Moving forward, from a military perspective, I am ready to move to phase 2B in Libyan Territorial Waters, but there are a number of political and legal challenges that must be addressed before I can recommend such a transition,” that report states. “We will also need to cooperate with and deconflict our activities with those of any other international missions that might operate within Libya once a Government of National Accord [GNA] has been established.”

In other words, politicians and the figures behind Operation Sophia argue that intercepting and destroying refugee boats in international waters is not, in fact, preventing displaced people from attempting the voyage. In order to offshore the Libyan crisis from Europe, they insist, refugees must be prevented from leaving that country’s waters, and that requires an effective state.

This evaluation sheds light on the new international push, led by western nations, to arm Libya’s “Government of National Accord,” which may or may not actually exist.

Funneling Arms Into a Humanitarian Crisis

In a joint communique released Monday following a ministerial meeting in Vienna, world powers declared their intention to carve out an exception to the United Nations arms embargo on Libya, which has been in place since 2011.

In public statements, U.S. officials have dubiously claimed that this initiative will help defeat ISIS. “The international community will support the [Libyan] Presidency Council as it seeks exemption from the U.N. arms embargo to acquire those weapons and bullets needed to fight Daesh [ISIS} and other terrorist groups,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at a press conference on Monday.

In fact, NATO’s military intervention in 2011 played a critical role in unleashing the conditions that led to ISIS’s rise in Libya. Yet, the U.S. has continued its failed military intervention with a new wave of bombings and troop deployments. There is no evidence that funneling arms into Libya will somehow help stem the violence and chaos that western military campaigns have helped create.

But statements made by Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni at the Libya ministerial meeting reveal another key goal. He proclaimed that international support for the so-called GNA is “key,” because, with stabilization, “we can tackle the migration issue.”

However, the confidence of government officials withers as soon as they are pressed to explain who exactly would receive these arms shipments.

Dan Lamothe noted earlier this week in the Washington Post, “Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, told a handful of reporters here that Libya’s internal politics still make it difficult to determine which armed groups are aligning themselves with the Government of National Accord.”

And here’s what state department spokesperson John Kirby said in a press briefing on Wednesday to an unidentified reporter:

QUESTION: Is the lack of unity in Libya a concern for the United States when deciding whether or not to send weapons to Libya?

MR KIRBY: It is a concern for the United States on its face. And again, I’d point you back to what the Secretary said the other day, that this is a moment for all Libyans to come together and to support the Government of National Accord. That is the legitimate government and that is the government that we believe deserves the support of the international community, and we’d like to see all Libyans, wherever they are throughout the country, to come together to support that government. So the – is it a concern, the lack of consensus, there? Obviously, it is.

In other words, the U.S. is planning to help arm a Libyan faction that has not emerged as a legitimate government—and is instructing Libyan people to embrace that non-existent state. It is doing so in a country that it has already inflicted profound harm upon through a wrong-headed military intervention.

What It Means to Trap Refugees in Libya

While it is not apparent exactly what form western collaboration with a Libyan faction to tackle migration would take, all of the available evidence suggests that the plan is aimed at preventing displaced people from journeying across the Mediterranean.

This amounts to trapping refugees in dire conditions in Libya, which has no domestic refugee laws or asylum procedures. In an international briefing published last May, Amnesty International outlined the abuses that refugees stranded in Libya are forced to endure, from rape to torture to slave labor:

Torture and other ill-treatment in immigration detention centers have remained widespread. In many cases, migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea have been subjected to prolonged beatings in such facilities following their interception and arrest by the Libyan coastguard or militias acting on their own initiative in the absence of strong state institutions. Women held in these facilities, which lack female guards, are vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment.

… Research conducted by Amnesty International reveals that migrants and refugees are increasingly exploited and forced to work without pay, physically assaulted and robbed in their homes or in the streets. Religious minorities, in particular Christian migrants and refugees, are at highest risk of abuses, including abductions, torture and other ill-treatment and unlawful killings, from armed groups that seek to enforce their own interpretation of Islamic law and have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. They also face widespread discrimination and persecution from their employers, criminal groups and in immigration detention centers. In some cases, the detention and abuse of foreign nationals, in particular sub-Saharan Africans, have been motivated by a fear of illnesses, which was exacerbated by last year’s outbreak of Ebola.

A separate report from Human Rights Watch in 2014 found, “Guards in migrant detention centers under Libyan government control have tortured and otherwise abused migrants and asylum seekers, including with severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks.”

Meanwhile, Libya faces its own crisis of internally displaced refugees, thanks in large part to NATO’s disastrous military intervention. Last June, the UN Refugee Agency reported that “Increased fighting in Libya since the start of [2015] has led to a doubling in the number of displaced people in the country to more than 434,000.”

Any initiative to enlist a Libyan faction to trap refugees in these conditions is unconscionable. Meanwhile, there is already evidence that Europe’s military operations are forcing displaced people to resort to more dangerous means to escape these appaling conditions. In its recent report, the UK House of Lords noted that Operation Sophia’s systemic destruction of at least 80 vessels used to transport refugees “has simply caused the smugglers to shift from using wooden boats to rubber dinghies, which are even more unsafe.”

Despite the reams of disturbing reports from human rights groups and governments alike, Western countries remain determined to ratchet up the militarization of the Mediterranean. In April, heads of state from the U.S., UK, France, Germany and Italy “urged NATO and the EU to draw on their experience in the Aegean to explore how they could work together to address in an orderly and humane way migrant flows in the central Mediterranean,” according to a statement from the White House. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently declared that he is considering conducting direct training missions for the Libyan navy to block refugees from seeking to cross to Europe.

To keep the refugee crisis away from Europe’s shores, western states are willing to funnel arms into a war-torn country to shore up a government whose stablity is suspect at best. Behind the potentially catastrophic gambit lies a plan to trap survivors of violence and poverty in deplorable conditions. If those refugees manage to escape from the conflict zone, they will be met not by humanitarian relief, but by hostile military patrols. Beyond the walls of Fortress Europe, a vast, aquatic graveyard may soon expand.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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