The images, and voices, from Libya’s migrant detention centres are sickening. An online blog posted a letter written by an anonymous refugee from Darfur, detained in Libya. “RS” writes of having left his village, destroyed by the Janjaweed, to find “shelter” in an internally displaced persons’ camp where men were killed and women were raped. With no options left, he left Sudan for Libya, only to find himself in the middle of an escalating civil conflict from which human smugglers were trying to profit.
He tells a now familiar story of smugglers demanding more and more money, promising him access to Europe if he or his family can come up with it. He cannot and spends weeks confined to shipping container shelters with little, and often no food or drink. His captors are eventually defeated by the Libyan army, and he is liberated, only to be forced into government work camps where he and other migrants work in slave-like conditions. He pens this letter from the Qaser Bin Gasher detention centre:
Eventually I received my final transfer, to a detention center named Qaser Bin Ghashir where I sit today writing my story. When I arrived, I found hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers already gathered there. We were brought scraps food once a day. It was very cold and we did not have blankets, clothes, shoes, or showers. I still had the same lice in my hair as the day I fled Sabratha. We faced regular beatings, racist slurs and exploitation.
A constellation of events has produced the horrifying conditions under which nearly 6,000 migrants languish in Libya. Large numbers of these individuals are people who were caught attempting to reach Europe, intercepted on the Mediterranean Sea, and taken to Libya. A two-year-deal between Libya and the European Union dictates the conditions of these interceptions: in return for Libya’s willingness to intercept boats of asylum seekers bound for Europe, the EU offers financial and other support to Libya’s coast guard.
It is a deal with the devil, made by an EU that is irrationally fearful of being inundated with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in search only of safety and a better life. Thousands have drowned since the signing of this deal and others have been confined to a life of human rights abuse at the hands of the Libyan government.
One reporter says, “Since this deal, asylum seekers from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia have become some of the world’s most severe victims of abuse, extortion, slavery and torture at the hands of the Libyan forces.”
The worst part is that there is nothing newly horrific about the news stemming from Libya. Over two years ago, the world watched images of migrant auctions, in which hapless would-be refugees were apparently being sold into slavery. In response, attempting to give voice to global horror, the United Nations Security Council called this “human slave trade” an act that amounts to “heinous abuses of human rights.” In October 2018, a Somali man detained by the Libya government burned himself to death in protest, allegedly after he had been told by a representative from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees that he had no hope of leaving Libya.
These horrifying circumstances are now worsened by an escalating civil conflict. And, as the fighting in Libya intensifies, migrants now report worrying not only about starvation, dehydration, and torture, but also that they will be forced to fight in the ongoing civil conflict that is engulfing the country.
In the midst of these horrors, the Canadian government again showed some leadership. In February, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, announced that in addition to the 150 refugees Canada has admitted from Libya, “some rescued from migrant detention centres” (and thereby not Libyan nationals), it plans to admit another 600 in the next two years. An additional 100 people, freed from Libyan detention centres, and sent to Niger, will also be resettled. They are individuals, said Minister Hussen, who have “endured unimaginable trauma.”
And yet, why are so few of these refugees being admitted? And why will it take two years to do so when these individuals are dying right now? Why are we celebrating the admission of only 750 refugees from these horrific conditions, when Canada possesses the resources to offer many more spaces to individuals in desperate need?
Where is the government that, upon taking power, announced the intention to resettle 25,000 Syrians? There is, as the government knows, efficiency in admitting refugees whose background circumstances are broadly similar. We can develop settlement expertise in providing for their specific needs. It is in Canada’s power to offer a permanent solution to every single migrant in detention in Libya.
Let’s do it.
Patti Tamara Lenard is Associate Professor of Applied Ethics at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Her areas of research expertise include refugee and migration policies, multiculturalism, and the impact of counter-terrorism policies on minority communities. She is presently authoring her second book, tentatively titled, How Should Democracies Punish Terrorists?