Seeking Europe or leaving Libya? The role of transit countries in irregular migration

Pressures on migration systems are growing across Europe, from France and Britain where tension is mounting over migrants trying to cross the Channel Tunnel in Calais; to Greece where islands such asLesbos are receiving thousands of migrants and refugees on a weekly basis, and Serbia which is one stop on the so-called ‘Balkans route’ to Europe. Many of the journeys made by refugees and migrants involve transit through Libya and as a recent report produced by M-Hub, ‘Detained Youth: The fate of young migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees in Libya today’ shows, the reality of life in Libya for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees includes experiences of being detained. The conditions inside Libya explain why people continue to leave the country by boat, with thousands dying in the Mediterranean including up to 400 people in a recent boat capsize incident.

There is a growing body of evidence about the routes migrants and refugees are using to reach Europe across the Mediterranean including ‘Migration Trends across the Mediterranean: Connecting the Dots’ (Produced by ALTAI consulting for IOM, June 2015) and ‘Going West: Contemporary Mixed Migration Trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya and Europe’ (RMMS, January 2014). Additionally Save the Children’s assessment of conditions for children across Tunisia, Egypt and Libya estimated that there were at least 20 children in every detention centre across Libya. There are thought to be close to 40 detention centres in Libya run both by government authorities (Department for Combatting Illegal Migration, DCIM) and militia groups. Save the Children also highlighted the health needs of migrants and refugees in southern Libya who have undergone long journeys through the desert. A Sky News report interviewed migrants and refugees in border towns such as Kufra, showing the injuries many face due to car accidents and beatings at the hands of smugglers. It is also known that many women are sexually abused and raped by smugglers, who may hold people hostage until ransoms are paid by their family members.

As the Detained Youth report found, a majority of people who transit through Libya on their way to Europe spent some time in detention including detention centres run by DCIM, because “under current Libyan law, irregular entry or stay is punishable by imprisonment and a fine of at least 1,000 Libyan dinars, preceding deportation. To enforce national law and facilitate deportations, DCIM has administered a number of “migrant retention centres” and temporary holding facilities as a form of border control. These detention centres are headed by a director who reports to DCIM”. During detention, none of the 45 report respondents said they had access to a legal process, nor were they informed of their rights or given access to a lawyer. For the few with identity documents, these were either confiscated or in one case deliberately destroyed.

Adding to the abuse faced by migrants and refugees in detention centres as documented by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, M-Hub’s Detained Youth report collates information about beatings at the hands of detention centre guards, other forms of ill-treatment included electric shocks, water spray, verbal abuse, threats, humiliation, or contrived punishments and in the case of two female respondents, being raped by guards. Tensions were also experienced between migrants and refugees in the centres, where sanitation and hygiene arrangements were limited. While broader security conditions in Libya limit the operations of international organisations who could potentially monitor detention conditions there is also no mechanism in place to ensure people in detention are able to access information about their rights. Civil society groups and local NGOs are key to filling this gap.

In the longer term, as the report notes, “the absence of a humane and orderly framework for handling migration flows in Libya is no doubt a contributing factor to the ever increasing numbers of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees willing to risk their lives in the Mediterranean to reach the safety of Europe”.  With the number of migrants and refugees inside the country unknown, it is unclear as to how Libya has transformed from being a country of destination for migrants and refugees to one of transit and departure. However it is known that lawlessness offers more opportunities for people to move undetected and therefore migrants who would ordinarily seek work inside Libya may also be considering moving on to Europe by boat due to the conditions in the country and availability of smuggling networks. The punitive regime of detention only exacerbates the desire of many migrants and refugees to move out of Libya and onward to countries where they can find more durable solutions.

To date, many of the measures proposed by European politicians and policy-makers to address irregular migration focus only on deterrent-based and securitised approaches, such as targeting landlords who offer accommodation to undocumented arrivals and improvements to fencing. There is almost no consideration of the drivers forcing people to move from both their countries of origin and onward from transit sites. Efforts to address irregular migration that do not take into consideration a wider geographical scope, including countries south of the Mediterranean, will fall short in factoring in the wide range of reasons as to why people leave their countries of origin and move on in search of safety and opportunities. This includes working with the Libyan authorities to establish an orderly framework for migration and understanding the drivers forcing onward movement in countries of transit such as detention, abuse and exploitation.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.