Human trafficking and illegal migration have reached unacceptable proportions. The osmotic effect of this equation is proving to be a menace for those trying to gain from this exercise. This has led to about 800,000 illegal migrants and 50,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers being trapped in Libya alone. The continuing exodus of people from war-torn Syria and Iraq and tens of thousands of people from Africa have been adding to the deleterious effects created by persons trying to reach the safety of Europe and subsequent economic and social safety for themselves and their families. It has already led to hundreds having drowned in the Mediterranean Sea during their efforts to cross into Italy or Spain or Greece. The departure points in most cases have been from the northern shores of Libya.
Rana Jawad of the BBC has reported recently about the sorry state of affairs that currently exist in war-torn Libya and how that situation is being further exacerbated through the inability of regional and international institutions to restore a degree of order within this intractable paradigm. Both the print and the electronic media have touched on the miserable situation that exists in several detention centres for the aspiring illegal immigrants who failed to fulfil their dreams of crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.
The BBC has drawn attention particularly to the Triq al-Sikka Detention Centre, run by a pro-government militia in the capital, Tripoli, where the UN provides humanitarian assistance. It has been reported that mishandling of inmates and lack of constructive engagement on the part of the centre authorities have led to self-immolation of some inmates.
The would-be illegal immigrants have drawn the attention of visiting media personnel to the less than effective measures being undertaken by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR (whose mandate is to protect refugees) and its sister agency the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in this regard.
It may be mentioned here that since 2015 both the UNHCR and IOM have been providing training workshops and equipment for the Libyan coastguard, who have till now intercepted more than 15,000 people and returned them to Libya last year. Some allege that this co-operation with the coastguard is compromising the impartiality of the two UN agencies. The BBC reports has referred in this regard to an interesting observation by a humanitarian worker: "They work together with the EU to ensure that the migration problem is not coming to Europe. This is the aim of the EU and some of the European states, and I think they (UNHCR and IOM) are the implementers of that on the ground."
The European Union (EU) has tightened measures to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean. This has reduced the influx somewhat. There has been a decrease of 17 per cent on the same period in 2018. Nevertheless, it may be noted that according to the media in the first three months of 2019, some 15,900 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe via Mediterranean routes.
The EU in this regard has issued a statement, where it has reiterated that it "does not seek to stop global migration, but works with international partners to manage international migration, protect migrants' human rights, prevent perilous irregular journeys exploited by illegal human traffickers and ensure opportunities for legal and safe pathways".
Such an approach has however not been accepted fully by several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who are actively involved in efforts to ensure safety for such migrants.
Julien Raikman, the MSF's mission head in Libya, has remarked that it is difficult to understand why migrants should be taken back to Libya as "this is not a port of safety." In reply to this criticism, the UNHCR has retorted that its presence at ports where the Libyan coastguards bring intercepted migrants is important because it can register them and provide assistance. However, critics, including former UNHCR employees, have pointed out that the presence of UNHCR legitimises the unlawful return of migrants to Libya and their transfer to detention centres. Giulia Tranchina, a lawyer who has represented people trapped in Libya, has alleged guards in such detention centres quite often intentionally starve inmates for weeks.
Such reports have not been totally denied by the UNHCR representatives in Libya. One of their senior officials has stated that "These Detention Centres, at least some of them, work on a business model that involves smugglers, traffickers, sometimes forced labour." Sometimes, it has been acknowledged, they are more like prisons and serve as an opportunity for militias to make money.
An interesting feature in this matrix is that the UNHCR is not even recognised by the Libyan government in Tripoli. This creates further problems rather than answers in the ability of UNHCR and IOM being able to deal effectively with other NGOs on the ground.
Libya, since the ouster and killing of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, has become a battleground, with rival militias fighting for control. The UN-backed government in Tripoli has little power itself. Instead, it relies on various armed groups to fight off a rival authority based in the east, led by General Khalifa Haftar. This creates its own turbulence.
Since 2014 the EU has spent more than Euro 338 million (equivalent to about US$ 377 million) on projects in Libya aimed at helping migrants. This funding was supposed to have facilitated the functioning of UN institutions and NGOs. However, a UN audit of the UNHCR published in March this year has revealed mismanagement of funds, and multiple instances of failures to assess how much aid was needed and failures in verifying its delivery. The report has also found that US$ 2.9 million had been overspent on aid which was not then used. Focus has specially been attached to the deteriorating conditions in the Detention Centre in Khoms where there was clear evidence of human rights abuses, disappearances of migrants and suspected collusion between prison guards and human traffickers. Such a situation eventually led two foreign NGOs, including International Medical Corps, to unilaterally suspend their work there, citing a lack of response by both the UNHCR and IOM.
In December last year, the UNHCR paid for a controversial "Gathering and Departure Facility" in Tripoli at a cost of US Dollar 3.5 million. This was heralded by the EU as an "alternative to detention"- free from the abuse discovered at other detention centres. However the pat on the back appears to have come too early. It has subsequently been noted that even access to the compound of the Centre is controlled by Tripoli's Ministry of Interior and there is no freedom of movement for the migrants waiting there to be evacuated to neighbouring Niger.
It would be important to recall here that in July 2018 Human Rights Watch representatives paid a visit to four Detention Centres in Tripoli, Misrata and Zuwara. A subsequent report indicated that this organization had found inhumane conditions, poor quality food and water, lack of adequate healthcare and disturbing accounts of violence. It appears that the situation has continued to deteriorate since then.
Time has come for the relevant European Union authorities and the representatives of UN institutions to be consistent with international legal norms related to refugees. They need to take a more pro-active interest in resolving this inhumane situation. The European Union, an important protagonist in this tragic drama also needs to help in repatriating these unfortunate refugees back to their respective countries.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.