Please help, today one person self dead by petrol because hopeless.” Sally Hayden received the text in October 2018. The Irish Times journalist was one of the few outsiders trusted by refugees locked up in Libya. The text was about Abdulaziz, who had been forced to flee his native Somalia to escape al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida-linked Islamist group waging terror in east Africa.
After a perilous journey across the desert, Abdulaziz was locked up in Triq al-Sikka, a grim prison in Tripoli, Libya. Why? Because the EU pays Libyan militias millions of euros to detain anyone deemed a possible migrant to Europe. Like many other similar prisons across Libya, Triq al-Sikka is a place of hunger, disease, beatings, rape, torture and death. Death by starvation, death by beatings, death by execution. And death by suicide.
After nine months’ incarceration, Abdulaziz felt so bereft of hope that he seized a container of petrol used to fuel a generator, doused himself and lit a match. Hayden was the only journalist to report on his death.
I don’t know whether the UK’s immigration minister Robert Jenrick knows about Abdulaziz. Last week, he visited countries on either side of the Mediterranean (though not Libya) to persuade political leaders to take tougher measures against asylum seekers and undocumented migrants crossing the Mediterranean, to get north African governments to “stop the boats” a thousand miles from British waters.
In all this, Jenrick was coat-tailing EU politicians who for more than a decade have been stitching up deals with virtually every coercive force in the region, however reactionary or repulsive, funding them handsomely to lock up potential migrants to Europe. These deals have done little to undermine smuggling gangs but have been catastrophic both for asylum seekers and migrants and for the peoples of north and east Africa and the Sahel. The charred body of Abdulaziz is a reminder of the human cost of these deals.
From the EU’s 2010 compact with Muammar Gaddafi; to its subsequent agreements with militias and warlords after western intervention had shattered Libya; to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa set up in November 2015 as the Syrian war caused a sharp peak in migrants and panic in European capitals; to the Khartoum Process, which drew in countries in the east of Africa, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan; to bilateral deals with countries such as Turkey and Niger – the EU has disbursed billions of euros in an effort to persuade non-European countries to act as its immigration police.
The result has been the creation of a huge kidnap and detention industry from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, from the Mediterranean to the Sahel. Prisons, warehouses, even zoos, have been repurposed for the caging of migrants. A leaked EU internal memorandum in 2020 acknowledged that capturing migrants was now “a profitable business model”. In Libya, militias and people smugglers have rebadged themselves as “coastguards” trained and funded by the EU to capture migrants at sea and force them into Libyan detention.
In Triq al-Sikka and other detention centres, “acts of murder, enslavement, torture, rape and other inhumane acts are committed against migrants”, observed a damning UN report, “in furtherance of a state policy”. European leaders have long been aware of this, but have chosen to shut their eyes to the reality of their policies, pretending, as British politicians do, that they are moral crusaders challenging the evils of people smugglers.
The EU, after all, is the organisation that has given money to Omar al-Bashir, the former leader of Sudan indicted by the international criminal court for war crimes, to “manage migration” to Europe. The Janjaweed, a militia that pursued genocidal violence in Darfur, now calls itself the Rapid Support Forces and hunts down migrants for the EU rather than rebels for Bashir.
The EU approach has also been disastrous for local peoples. The externalisation of Europe’s migration policy has led to the dismantling of economies, the breakup of communities, the creation of new opportunities for human smugglers and Islamist militias and the undermining of trust in elected authorities.
Take Niger, a country in the Sahel, abutting Libya. It is among the 10 poorest countries in the world, which is why it has been turned into “Europe’s migration laboratory”. It is, in per capita terms, the largest recipient of EU aid, in return for which the Niger authorities are forced to distort domestic policies to fit with the EU’s migration needs, including the adoption in 2015 of a law against smuggling migrants.
Migration was woven into Sahel life long before Europe felt threatened by it. Much of the economy is rooted in that tradition of people movement. The Brussels-enforced policy has not only acted as a block to Europe-bound migration but destroyed regional migration and made freedom of movement, that hallowed policy within the EU, much more difficult within Niger.
It has destroyed the livelihoods of many who used to service migrant routes without creating new means of making a living. It has also, ironically, helped establish a new industry of human smuggling.
EU demands have led also to an even greater erosion of the already low public trust in the authority of the government, leading people to ask why “we work for the EU rather than for them, the people who got us elected”. It’s a pertinent question given the description of the region by Ángel Losada, the EU’s former special representative for the Sahel, as “Europe’s new forward border”.
And there’s the irony. Politicians and policymakers who normally place such great store on “defending sovereignty” and “protecting borders” are more than happy to trample over the sovereignty of poorer nations and to disregard their borders so long as it allows them to “stop the boats”.
Britain, Jenrick told the Times last week, is “taking the fight to the people-smuggling gangs upstream” so as to save migrants from making “dangerous and unnecessary journeys”. That is about as morally honest as the EU’s presentation of its migration policy as being for the good of African nations.
It may provide a morally acceptable soundbite, but Jenrick’s real aim is to push other nations to act as Britain’s immigration police. Britain may have left the EU, but the EU’s migration mentality remains firmly lodged in British policy.
Written by Kenan Malik. Published by The Guardian on June 4, 2023.