Europe's fortress condemns refugees to Libyan danger

Europe's fortress condemns refugees to Libyan danger
In-depth: The collusion of far-right European politicians with Libyan authorities is making a life-threatening journey much more dangerous, writes Mohammed Harun Arsalai.
6 min read
01 June, 2017
Migrants intercepted by Libya's coastguard are held in infamous detention facilities before being deported [AFP]

As Libya's humanitarian crisis continues to deepen, EU officials have stepped up measures to stop migrants and refugees from reaching European shores.

The Italian government in particular has enacted stricter laws - building more detention centres and furthering its cooperation with Libyan authorities and its coastguard.

Amnesty International has cited an "extremely worrying departure from the procedures so far applied to search and rescue operations" by the Italian coastguard.

The report states that, on March 10, a distress call from a migrant and refugee boat received by the Italian coast led to the boat's interception in international waters by the Libyan coastguard.

The intervention was caught on film, which shows the Libyan coastguard approaching at high speed and making a dangerous manoeuvre to cut off the approach of Sea-Watch 2, a vessel used by a German non-governmental organisation for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. It was in the area after also being alerted by the Italian coastguard's Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome.

Watch the Libyan coastguard intercepting the Sea Watch 2

At the time of its distress call, the wooden boat was packed with an estimated 500 people, according to Amnesty, and was technically in Libyan waters when the distress call reached Italian authorities.

By the time of the boat's apprehension by Libyan coastguards, it was already well into international waters.

Sea Watch says that its crew had already lowered lifeboats to safely evacuate people from the overcrowded refugee boat when the Libyan coastguard showed up and used their automatic weapons to threaten all those on the scene.

This was not the first time the Libyan coastguard has threatened rescue boats in the Mediterranean Sea, said Aurelie Ponthieu of Doctors Without Borders. 

"This past August, the Libyan coastguard fired shots at one of our vessels," she told The New Arab.

This latest encounter between search and rescue organisations and the Libyan coastguard comes as Italy and the EU find new ways to stop the flow of refugees by enacting stricter laws inside Italy and by signing questionable agreements with Libyan authorities to bolster border patrol efforts.

Last week, Italy returned four of ten speedboats that were once given to Rome by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with the other six boats to be returned in the coming months. The Libyan coastguard has requested these vessels to be refitted with machine guns and deployed back into the Mediterranean.

In Sicily, local prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has admitted he has 'no evidence', but has not stopped repeating claims that NGOs are working with smugglers

A debate has been brewing inside Italy and the wider EU due to a leaked memo written by Frontex, a Poland-based security firm tasked with securing EU borders. In the leaked memo, Frontex claims that NGOs conducting rescue missions had been colluding with people smugglers inside Libya, stating that the NGOs had inadvertently created a "pull factor" that led smugglers to use less fuel and unstable boats - with the expectation that rescue crews would transfer refugees into their own boats closer to the shores of Libya - which has led to increasing deaths.

These accusations against NGOs have been echoed by far-right politicians across the EU. In Sicily, local prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has admitted he has "no evidence", but has not stopped repeating claims that NGOs are working with smugglers.

The accusations being made against rescue workers has led the Italian parliament to drag NGO staff in front of the Italian parliament to answer the claims being made.

Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch has called the accusations against NGOs conducting rescue operations a "damaging distraction from the real challenges and responsibilities facing not only Italy, but Europe as a whole".

Read more: Europe's border regime leaves the Mediterranean a (profitable) graveyard

To add to the problem, the unfounded accusations being made by some in the Italian government and other EU politicians has given far-right political parties, such as Italy's Lega Nord (Northern League) new talking points to shore up xenophobic anti-migrant sentiment.

Italy's fast growing populist Five Star Movement has even claimed that "NGOs are a taxi service" for migrants and people-smugglers.

These accusations have helped neo-fascist and white supremacist activists to bolster their memberships and activities.

Earlier this month, a group of people identifying with the white supremacist cause, including far right activist Martin Sellner from Austria, Canadian "alt-right" author Lauren Southern - whose works include Barbarians: How Baby Boomers, Immigrants and Islam Screwed Up My Generation - and several members of France's ultra-right "Generation Indentitaire" youth movement, attempted off the coast of Sicily to use a small passenger boat to try to stop Aquarius, a large rescue ship used by Doctors Without Borders.

If its not the police harassing us on the street, we have to worry about some of the locals who are angry that we are here

Although the group was unsuccessful, and was quickly detained by the Italian coastguard before being released, this first-of-its-kind action has galvanised white supremacists, neo-nazis and neo-fascists around the globe - many of whom are now reportedly preparing more of these maritime misadventures.

A fundraiser has been set up by Lauren Southern and others with the goal of reaching $50,000, so the group can acquire larger boats and bring in more participants to take on more actions off the Sicilian coast. Their stated goal is to "stop the invasion" of migrants into Europe, who the far-right claim are "taking European jobs".

Read more: Refugees still braving the soul-crushing 'Balkans route'

"If its not the police harassing us on the street, we have to worry about some of the locals who are angry that we are here," said Ghafar, an African migrant from Nigeria in Italy. "We understand that the economy is bad here... so why don't the authorities allow us to leave the country and continue our journey north? We don't want to stay here with all these problems and no support."

In the northern Italian city of Genoa - known for being the only city to free herself from fascism in the 1940s - previous concerns over rising anti-migrant sentiment and the growth of ultra-right political parties have now become a reality.

"Genoa was once known as the backbone of the anti-fascist struggle, and now we're seeing anti-migrant groups and far-right parties like Five Star gaining ground here," Amalia, a local feminist activist, told The New Arab. "It's happening even among the local population - poor and working class citizens are buying into the argument that migrants are taking their jobs and committing acts of violence, or even rapes.

"There have even been demonstrations against relocating refugees into abandoned buildings in the city."

The demonstration to which Amalia referred was held on March 16. Citizens in a low-income area in Genoa organised the protest in order to stop the housing of 50 refugees in a abandoned building in their neighbourhood, fearing additional crime and violence from the refugees - clear talking points of the far right.

"I saw my friend drown in front of me," Ghafar said. "We took the risks because Libya has become a hell. They put us in detention and did not feed us properly or give us drinking water. They beat people for no reason. Some were killed."

To avoid the torture, rape, death and slavery for which Libya's migrant centres ae building a reputation, many migrants have opted to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach the shores of Sicily.

According to the IOM's Missing Migrants Project, at least 1,340 have died in the Mediterranean this year alone.

Mohammed Harun Arsalai is an independent journalist and political activist from the Bay Area of California, and co-founder of the independent media project, 
Documenting Afghanistan. Currently based in his native Afghanistan, Mohammed's recent work focuses on refugees, the War on Terror, and militant groups operating inside Afghanistan.

Follow him on Twitter: @ArsalaiH

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