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Libya, slavery and the EU

CNN’s exposure of migrant slave markets in Libya should be no surprise to anyone, as the UN Libyan Support Mission (UNSMIL)’s April report to the Security Council stated migrants were openly bought and sold, including women and girls traded as sex slaves. It describes thousands of migrants detained, starved, beaten, and tortured (often on Facetime, in order to to extort their relatives – and often to death when money doesn’t come). It details extreme sexual violence against women and girls from armed groups, traffickers, and Libyan migration officials. There is nothing preventing this. Many migrants expect it, taking a three-month contraception injection before entering Libya. Fleeing persecution, conflict and poverty, they see no alternative. The International Criminal Court is looking to open an investigation into migrant related crimes in Libya.

What is Europe’s response? In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found that, in returning migrants from international waters to Libya, Italy had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans return to persecution. What, then, should Italy do? Leaving children to drown upsets voters, and allegations that rescues increase migration have been proved wrong (if you will risk Libya, you will risk the sea, rescue or not). So Europe is now paying Libya to ‘rescue’ them instead**. In summer Libya began aggressive efforts at sea, in return for significant European financial aid (including £9 million promised by Boris during his August visit). Meanwhile, under strong Italian pressure, NGO rescue boats were made to sign a code of conduct forcing them back to port after each rescue, and keeping them away from the edge of Libyan territorial waters (where sinking boats often call for help).

The Italian-trained Libyan coastguard now intercepts 60% of vessels, returning migrants to detention (some report killings at sea). Numbers reaching Italy fell this summer, meaning even more detained in Libya, so each life is worth less. Two weeks ago the UN High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein spoke called European support for the Libyan coastguard ‘inhuman’. He described ‘unimaginable horrors’ there, including a detention centre in Tripoli in which “thousands of emaciated and traumatised men, women and children piled on top of one another, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, stripped of their human dignity.” He said, “we cannot be a silent witness to modern day slavery, rape and other sexual violence, and unlawful killings in the name of managing migration and preventing desperate and traumatised people from reaching Europe’s shores.”

A few years ago the Doctor visited Accra, where the old slave houses still face the sea, decaying monuments to enslaved men, women and children shipped on for profit. This is happening again, right now, and Britain is putting £9 million towards it, Boris telling the conservative party conference, “there’s an optimism … It’s true, it’s true, Libya will have a great future.” Given the state of Libya, one suspects the optimism comes mainly from those receiving the cash. Does anyone feel just a bit sick?




**In October 2016, European forces began training Libyan coast guard forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), one of the two competing alliances claiming to rule in Libya. Italy delivered four patrol boats to the GNA, then imposed a code of conduct on NGOs.

Soon after, the GNA declared a search-and-rescue area extending out 74 nautical miles, well beyond its territorial waters, and warned NGOs they would need authorisation to patrol the area. Days later, a Libyan coast guard vessel approached a Spanish rescue ship in international waters and threatened to “target” it unless it sailed towards Tripoli.

The EU knows that the GNA has extensive links with armed militias, coast guard units, and people-smuggling networks.






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