A war on migrants in Libya, supported by Europe

Migrants in Desert
Migrants in Desert

The essentials: A bombing outside Tripoli last week that killed at least 44 refugees and migrants in a holding facility has called attention to the inhumane conditions in which migrants are being held and the agreements between the Libyan government, militias and the European Union that put them there in the first place.

The background: The people locked in those facilities are largely migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa attempting to escape across the Mediterranean. As Sally Hayden writes in The New York Times, many had been arrested by a Libyan coast guard that is supported by its European counterpart. They are then held there without charge. The United Nations estimates there are 6,000 people in the facilities, including 1,200 children.

They are held in abysmal conditions, often forced to work in military stores for the government, which is currently battling an insurgency led by the militia leader Khalifa Haftar. They also face starvation, neglect and violence. Some are conscripted into the fighting against their will. And now they are collateral damage as Haftar’s troops take a new approach.

Their efforts to storm Tripoli have stalled, prompting a new strategy of aerial bombardments, which one of Haftar’s commanders announced last week. Two days later came the attack that hit the holding facility. In addition to the dead, there were at least 130 injuries.

The good: Perhaps good will emerge in the form of raised awareness and increased pressure, at least on European governments, to confront their role in this system and to improve the conditions of migrants and refugees. But that will be cold comfort to the dead and injured.

The bad: Libya is littered with these facilities and there’s no reason to think they might not come under future attack by Haftar and his forces. In the meantime, if the Libyan government already sees them as reserves of forced labour, there’s no reason to expect they will not continue or ramp up that practice.

The future: For the people already trapped in the facility, it remains bleak. There are reports that they have mounted a hunger strike and are demanding that they be removed from the facilities and transported someplace safer — outside of Libya.