Stop the boats; destroy them and attack the smugglers; and so halt the refugees for their own good – this is now the message of Europe’s politicians’, faced with the tragic mass deaths resulting from their refusal to continue Italy’s sea rescue campaign of 2014. By blaming the smugglers and their boats, EU leaders may politically succeed in shifting their culpability of down-grading the Operation Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission to a more limited and cheaper to run Operation Triton onto a reviled group, as a scapegoat for their own criminal inhumanity. All the predictions of the experts that many migrant lives would be lost unless there was a real replacement for Mare Nostrum have come all too true. EU leaders at an emergency summit on migration discussed plans to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats. Italy, which is shouldering much of the burden of migrant arrivals, would like to go further and is pushing for a military operation to take out smuggling networks. But the human smuggling trade in Libya does not have a hierarchical structure with one Mafia-style mob boss at the top who can be targeted. From the southern border to the beaches in the north, each smuggler has his own network. When migrants complete one stage of the journey, they are given phone numbers of partners in the network who can help them with the next stage. Armed groups across North Africa and the Sahel are profiting from the increasingly lucrative migrant smuggling trade, but neither Libya Dawn, an alliance of militias controlling most of the western coastal cities, nor Islamic State, the other major force in the area, are involved in the business as they are unable to control the entire chain from south to north.
Anyway, what is the point of taking out a few individuals or destroying their vessels – difficult as this will be in practice – if the demand driving their trade remains in place? At the time of Spain’s 2006 “boat crisis.” As Spanish border guards confiscated the Senegal-based people smugglers Yamaha motors, new ones could always be found; and as their long wooden fishing boats were wrecked in the 1,500-kilometre crossing to the Canaries, new ones were easily built. At least the European border agents at work in West Africa knew that destroying the thousands of small fishing boats there was nonsensical; not only would they immediately be replaced with new ones. If you destroy their delivery mechanism, they will simply find another, more fragile kind. The problem is not the vessel, nor the person piloting it; rather, it is why the market exists in the first place.
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Politicians keep talking about “unscrupulous traffickers,” insinuating that migrants and refugees are passive victims. But people forced to move are creative, resourceful and anything but stupid. Most refugees and migrants know about the risks yet still they embark rusty vessels, since staying behind is either more deadly – as in Syria – or a recipe for wanton incarceration and endless desperation, as in chaos-ridden Libya. As demand grows, a market has emerged in the shadow of more controls, replacing the fishermen-captains of yore with professional smugglers and criminal networks. Worse, repression has helped create a captive market in Libya, where migrants are seen as fair game by security forces, militias and bandits. Instead of being valued customers, they are now brutalised like cattle, kept as hostages or packed into the hull of rusty ships – which should preferably remain unpiloted, to avoid the detention of anyone seen as “trafficker.”
Instead of trying to destroy part of the smuggling supply chain, the EU should undercut their business by creating incentives not to use it. This means taking in refugees through new legal routes, for instance ferrying them out of Libya and Syria. Such a move would remove the captive element of the smuggling market, greatly diminishing its predatory hold and its profits – while limiting the man-made tragedies of the Mediterranean, as long as a full rescue response is also put in place. People will keep trying to leave no matter what obstacles we put in place, no matter how many boats we burn, no matter how many smugglers we prosecute. A market will emerge to cater for their needs. It is within our power to regain control of that market: to organise it, to legalise it, to undo its predatory trend.
Destroyed Libyan ships will be replaced by even more precarious vessels; existing routes will be pushed into even riskier areas; and new criminal gangs will fill the gap left in the market by European “attacks” on smugglers. And all this will yet again bring more, not fewer, deaths in the Mediterranean. Boarding smugglers’ boats in the hope of reaching Europe is only one of the many perilous steps in a journey that for many never reaches the shores of North Africa. Before reaching the coast of Libya, where the majority of boats depart, many have endured kidnappings, detention, rape and torture along the way. “Crossing the sea is just the last tiny bit,” noted Meron Estafanos, an Eritrean journalist and human rights activist who regularly listens to harrowing accounts from Eritrean asylum-seekers at different stages of their odysseys.
Many of the 1,750 migrants to have drowned in the Mediterranean this year were sub-Saharan Africans who boarded smugglers’ boats in Libya. We will never know all their individual stories, but it is possible to retrace their steps through the deserts of Sudan, Chad and Niger to Libya’s porous southern borders, and north to its coastal cities and the beaches where the boats were launched. Each stage of that journey is facilitated by smugglers, who have thrived amidst the conflict and turmoil that have gripped Libya since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
Libya’s southern border is largely controlled by the Tubu ethnic group who live in northern Chad and northeastern Niger as well as southern Libya. Tubu border guards receive a cut for each migrant convoy they admit. The route through Niger is the main one used by West Africans, although many Malians also enter via Algeria, where the smuggling trade is controlled by the Tuaregs, another ethnic group. The fee to be smuggled from West Africa to Libya via Niger is usually about $1,600, plus another $400 in payment to the Tubu at the border.
After crossing, the migrants are dropped off outside towns in Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region. After reaching towns, the exhausted and disoriented travellers find shared rooms to rent and spend their days at roundabouts and main roads trying to get casual labour jobs. Libyans often employ them to do low-paid work such as collecting rubbish and cooking. The majority of the migrants only spend a few weeks or months in Sebha, Fezzan’s capital, or other cities in the region, in order to save enough money to continue to the northwestern coastal cities of Tripoli or Misrata. Transport north is usually organised by local Arab tribes, mainly the Ouled Slimane. At Al-Jaraba Street roundabout in downtown Tripoli, migrants have plenty of stories of mistreatment by employers. For female migrants, working conditions are even more precarious. They are usually employed to do domestic work and stay in their employers’ homes. Migrants who manage to avoid detention save their earnings until they have the roughly $2,000 needed to complete the final stage of their journey – taking a boat to Europe.
Khoms, Garabouli and Sabratha beaches, all on the northwest coast, are popular places for smugglers to launch boats, but Zuwara, where the smuggling trade is controlled by the long-marginalised Amazigh minority, is the most used. When the weather is calm and the wind blows from the south, young migrant smugglers drive the 120-kilometre trip from Zuwara to Tripoli to collect their “shipment.” To avoid detection, they wait until the last moment to bring the migrants in taxis or mini-buses. The smugglers call their contacts in Tripoli to gather the migrants, at the most three days before the boat leaves. For these young men, they just see it as easy money. They bring the wooden boats from Egypt or Tunisia where they are built. It costs between $11,000 and $15,000 for each boat. Any future possible loss of the boats will simply be an additional cost of doing business to add to the price demanded of the migrants.
In 2014, Eritreans fleeing repression and indefinite military service at home made up the second largest nationality arriving in southern Europe after Syrians, according to the International Organization for Migration. Most leave Eritrea without the required permission, which is rarely given to those under the age of 50. If caught, the penalty can be a lengthy jail sentence, but Eritrean authorities have also been known to use a shoot-to-kill policy for people found in certain border areas. After arriving in eastern Sudan, some register at refugee camps near the town of Kassala, while others head straight to the capital Khartoum. There they join others, including Ethiopians and Somalis, hoping to connect with smugglers who can take them across the Sahara desert and into Libya.
“The worst part is getting through the Sahara,” Estafanos, a presenter for Radio Erena, which broadcasts from Sweden into Eritrea, told IRIN. “A lot of people die of thirst; some fall off the car and the smugglers don’t stop for them. Eritrean asylum-seekers know the risks when they make the decision to embark on the journey to Europe, but view the alternative - remaining in Eritrea - as worse. In Eritrea you’re alive, but it’s like you’re dead.”
No one knows how many migrants die in the Sahara. Their deaths are seldom reported and their bodies rarely recovered. In addition to the hazards of a desert crossing is the kidnapping risk. In some cases, traffickers abduct Eritreans from Kassala and take them to torture camps where they are forced to phone relatives and beg for ransom money. Until recently, many were sold on to Egyptian traffickers operating in the Sinai Peninsula where they endured more torture until relatives could raise ever-higher ransom amounts. Researchers estimate that between 2009 and 2013, as many as 30,000 people were victims of trafficking and torture in the Sinai Peninsula, and that between 5,000 and 10,000 of them did not survive their ordeal. In Libya, migrants must either take their chances with smugglers or risk being arrested and detained for months in over-crowded detention centres where Human Rights Watch has reported dire conditions and abusive behaviour by guards. The human traffickers operate with relative impunity, keeping migrants in “connection houses” until they can be put on boats. UNHCR reported that a migrant boat rescued off the coast of southern Italy’s Lampedusa Island contained a number of burn victims. According to survivor accounts, a gas cylinder had exploded in one of the connection houses, killing several people and injuring others. Rather than get medical help, smugglers loaded the injured onto a rubber dinghy. a second dingy containing burn victims was stopped by soldiers before it set off and the group of 87 migrants is now being held at an unknown location on the coast until they can pay $600 to secure their release. Their burns are very severe and they haven’t been treated
EU leaders merely address the cameras, not the root problems. Stefan Kessler, senior policy officer with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe, observed “Overall, the clear message from this meeting is: ‘Keep protection-seekers far, far away from Europe so that their deaths don’t make the headlines in European media.’ ” What new plans, if any that are likely to tackle the causes of the growing crisis? Tuesday Reitano, head of the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, “Bombing or sinking boats is going to do nothing. We have evidence that there are now containers full of rubber dinghies being bought in Asia and shipped to Libya. The dinghies are less safe, and infinitely replaceable.”
The people smugglers have managed to put down roots and tentacles that are very far spread. A United Nations Security Council resolution that would allow a military operation might enable some low-level smugglers to be caught and arrested. But Reitano warned that the kingpins controlling the increasingly professional and adaptable smuggling networks would continue operating. Targeting smugglers also does nothing to reduce the demand for their services, which is only likely to increase with mounting crises. Measures such as returning migrants and refugees merely shifts the burden to countries on the migratory route and making them responsible yet few possess the infrastructure to cope. Lieutenant Khaled Attumi, director of a detention centre for male migrants in Zawyia, Libya admitted conditions were unsanitary and that detainees were suffering. He blamed the Tripoli-based government. “If it goes on like this, I will release all of the migrants,” he said.
Far from making a commitment to accept significantly higher numbers of refugees through resettlement as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, had urged ahead of the meeting, the EU pledged only to set up a voluntary pilot project. An earlier draft of the statement had offered a very modest 5,000 resettlement places, but the final draft contained no figure at all. Expanding resettlement programmes in the EU would reduce the need for refugees to board smugglers’ boats. Europe’s current contribution to resettlement remains low, with only about nine percent of refugees resettled globally taken by member states. Even a programme to relocate asylum-seekers from over-burdened frontline states like Italy and Greece to other member states would be on a voluntary basis and is still being considered. Jeff Crisp, former head of policy and evaluation at UNHCR and now an advisor with Refugees International, noted the summit’s “complete failure to acknowledge that many of the asylum-seekers originating from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Syria have a very strong claim to refugee status.” The reality is that the vast majority arriving are those with protection needs – Eritreans, Somalis, Syrians. Yemen is going to make it worse, Boko Haram in Nigeria is going to make it worse. There is too instability and poverty and human rights abuses to dry up the supply of desperate people, fleeing dire conditions in the hope of a better life.
In 2014, 800 merchant ships were diverted to rescue some 40,000 migrants at sea, most of them in the Mediterranean. At a meeting to address mixed migration by sea hosted by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in London in March, ship-owners said they were struggling to cope with the financial and security costs of such rescues. UNHCR, says shipping companies are now re-routing their vessels to avoid areas likely to encounter migrant boats. One of a list of proposals put forward by the UNHCR is to compensate private shipowners for the losses they incur rescuing migrants at sea. A mechanism set up by the IMO during the exodus from Vietnam in the 1980s still exists and could be re-activated, said the agency. Migrants and asylum-seekers are increasingly opting for sea crossings because overland routes have become impenetrable. Greece fenced off its border with Turkey in 2012 and other countries have followed suit. Bulgaria erected a fence along a section of its border with Turkey. Frontier guards from several countries on the frontlines of the EU have been accused of pushing back migrants and denying them access to asylum.
Numerous rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have pointed out that reducing rather than bolstering border controls and creating safe and legal channels to the EU are the only lasting solutions to the worsening crisis in the Mediterranean. Instead of investing in more rescues and establishing legal routes into Europe, politicians are calling for more “collaboration” with African states to halt flows at source or in transit. Refugee reception centres on African soil, naval patrols by North African states and political deals to curtail human smuggling is the projected plan. The idea is to outsource tough policing while heaping risks and responsibilities onto African countries, accompanied by a pile of “gifts” for those willing to play their part in the “fight against irregular migration” from policing equipment and top-up pay to re-purposed development aid and diplomatic concessions, all under the guise of a humanitarian concern for the well-being of migrants. North African states in particular have in the past decade squeezed substantial political capital out of deepening border cooperation. Morocco has perfected the art of using its new found status as “transit state” to extract concessions in fields as varied as fishing rights, aid, acquiescence over occupied Western Sahara and even some selective mobility for its own citizens. In Libya, long an important destination for African workers, Gaddafi used migrants as a bargaining chip even as NATO bombs started to fall. That legacy has been continued by militias and security forces, which have increasingly treated African migrants as fair game for extortions, beatings and arbitrary detentions. Further south, in similarly migration-dependent Mauritania, cooperation with Spain has brought arbitrary raids, detentions and deportations. And in Algeria, migrants have been serially expelled and robbed at gunpoint as they were bundled into cattle carriages rumbling through the Sahara. Migrants arriving in North Africa are becoming a valuable commodity not just to smugglers preying on a captive client base, but also to police and politicians. All this makes life increasingly impossible for black foreigners, who desperately start scrambling for an exit. It is a vicious cycle that has to be broken.
Instead of fuelling this trade in human misery, European politicians should be doing the opposite – minimising rather than inflating gains from the border business. This would mean encouraging the normalisation of mobility, for instance via more legal pathways into Europe and via the decriminalisation of irregular migration in North Africa. It would mean re-framing migration not as a security problem in need of more policing cooperation but as an inevitable socio-economic force that can yield substantial benefits to Europe as well as its neighbours. Political amnesia in European political circles – not to mention the opportunistic onward march of the right – means there is little chance of a rethink.
The Socialism Or Your Money Back blog has to ask why it is that money is free to pass through borders to tax-havens in a milli-seconds, while desperate people in dire need die trying to reach a safe haven?