Photo: Numbers of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean may have dropped in 2018, but at a heavy human cost. Source: MSF Sea. - Photo: 2019

Europe’s Invisible Wall Whets Human Trafficking

By Klara Smits

BRUSSELS (IDN) – After his visit to Austria, Libya’s foreign minister Mohammed Sayala told the Kuwaiti News Agency on January 31 that Libya’s southern borders have now become Europe’s borders. Illegal migration could not be stopped at the Mediterranean Sea, he argued. Therefore, he promised that on the February 20, Libya will present the EU with a policy to cooperate on ‘protecting’ those southern borders. The plan will also include border agreements with Chad, Niger and Sudan.

The EU’s border is slowly moving deeper into Africa. Since 2016, the EU has supported and trained the Libyan coast guard to return people to Libya where they are subjected to hunger, cold, abuse and lack of medical attention. Refugees intercepted by the Libyan coast guard have refused to leave the ships, fearing that they would be captured and tortured for ransom by human traffickers – again.

Libya is not the EU’s only new border. The EU is cooperating with regimes such as that of Sudan and Eritrea, to stop migration. The chair for the EU-Africa Migration Initiative, also called the Khartoum Process, will be taken over by Eritrea in 2019. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has started to evacuate a small portion of the estimated 800.000 people from official detention centres in Libya.

The ‘lucky few’ end up in Niger, where the refugees remain under the care of UNHCR and are sent to Niamey, whereas the migrants end up in an International Organization on Migration (IOM) camp to organize their return. Those who do not want to return end up in migrant slums in Agadez.

According to informed sources in Agadez, many see no other option than to try for Libya again. The human rights abuse in Libya, not only in the human trafficking warehouses where people are tortured and ransom is extorted, but also in the official detention centres, is well documented.

The European Commission is keen to expand these external refugee and migrant camps, by establishing so-called ‘disembarkation platforms’. These would be maintained with the help of ‘interested third countries’.

Even as the EU is cooperating with the Libyan coast guard to return people to Libya, the European block has made it very difficult for search and rescue operations by NGOs to continue their life-saving work in the Mediterranean Sea.

An open letter signed by over 50 NGOs raised the alarm: of the five organisations rescuing people at sea at this time last year, only one was able to do so at the moment. This means that, despite the rapidly falling number of arrivals in Europe, the proportional number of deaths is not decreasing. In addition, both arrivals and deaths are now increasing along the even more dangerous Western Mediterranean Route.

Internal EU politics also works to stop migration. This year, the ship Sea-Watch 3 was forced to remain afloat for twelve days after it had rescued 47 people in the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian government refused to let the ship dock, arguing that the Dutch government should step in – as the ship was flying a Dutch flag.

After the Dutch refused, the situation was only resolved when seven EU member states finally agreed to host the people on board. After the disembarkation, the crew was promptly detained for assisting illegal migration – two weeks later, the ship still has not been allowed to leave the port.

In addition, internal politics and policies in EU member states make it increasingly difficult for refugees and migrants to be welcomed into the countries of the union. In Belgium, for example, municipal councilor Melikan Kucam for the Belgian N-VA party was arrested for the allegation that he had accepted bribes for humanitarian visas of up to EUR 10,000.

People such as Kucam were allowed to pass lists of names to fellow party member and state secretary for asylum and migration, Theo Francken, who had insisted on determining such long-term stay requests on an individual basis. There were no criteria to judge such requests, making it very vulnerable to fraud. At the end of 2018, the same N-VA party caused the fall of the Belgian government after withdrawing over their refusal to agree with the signing of the legally non-binding UN Global Compact on Migration.

Journalist Martin Plaut says that through its migration policy, the EU is constructing a virtual wall. Just like U.S. President Donald Trump’s wall, the invisible wall of the EU carries costs. Operation Sophia, the EU’s operation to disrupt the networks of traffickers and smugglers in the Mediterranean, was extended in 2016 to include training of Libyan coast guard.

The entire operation has a budget of around EUR 12 million a year, and beyond this, includes the assignment of military assets. The EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has allocated EUR 4.2 billion, 3.7 of which comes from EU instruments, of which the bulk comes from development and humanitarian emergency funding.

The wall that the EU is erecting is working, and the EU is very proud of that. Dimitris Avramopolous, EU Commissioner on Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, proudly stated on January 23 at the London School of Economics:

“Today, the results of our joint efforts over these past few years are very tangible. The numbers are back to, and even below, the pre-crisis years. To give you an illustration: arrivals have dropped by 95% on the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, and by 80% on the route from sub-Saharan and Northern Africa through Libya.”

However, anti-migration rhetoric in the EU is on the rise. The number of deaths per crossing in the Mediterranean Sea is increasing. The IOM has admitted that it does not know how many people die in the desert. In order to avoid the wall, border guards, and the increasingly effective Libyan coast guard, people take increasingly more risk. The number of deaths on the Western Mediterranean route nearly quadrupled in 2018. Smaller human smugglers may be deterred by the crackdown, but the well-organised human trafficking networks profit from the increasingly difficult routes and desperate situations of migrants and refugees.

This is not a matter of rational push and pull considerations for migrants and refugees, but of life and death. Many have nowhere else to go. Even those evacuated from Libya often find their way back, for lack of an alternative. The wall that Trump is proposing outrages us, but the EU is building an invisible wall that is equally solid and the people that ultimately profit from this the most are the human traffickers. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 February 2019]

Photo: Numbers of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean may have dropped in 2018, but at a heavy human cost. Source: MSF Sea.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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