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Op-Ed: Climate migration will worsen the brutality and chaos on the Mediterranean

Bangladeshi migrants making their way from Libya to Europe are rescued by the crew of the Geo Barents
Bangladeshi migrants making their way from Libya to Europe are rescued June 12 by the crew of the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by Doctors Without Borders in the central Mediterranean.
(Ed Ou / Outlaw Ocean Project)

In July 2018, an Italian-flagged oil supply ship called the Asso 28 that was crossing the Mediterranean Sea encountered a stalled rubber raft carrying 100 desperate migrants. Trying to make the dangerous journey from Libya to Europe, the migrants had reached international waters when the supply ship rescued them. But the ship’s captain opted not to take the migrants to a port of safety in Europe, as required by law, but back to a gulag of migrant detention facilities in Libya where the United Nations and others have documented systematic torture, rape, extortion, forced labor and death.

In October, the captain of that supply ship, Giuseppe Sotgiu, paid a heavy price for his decision: An Italian judge sentenced him to a year in prison for violating humanitarian law. The painful irony of this conviction is that Sotgiu will be jailed for what European Union officials have been doing on a far grander scale for several years — pushing migrants back to a place of extreme human rights abuses.

Since at least 2017, the EU, led by Italy, has trained and equipped the Libyan coast guard to serve as a proxy maritime force, whose central purpose is to stop migrants from reaching European shores. Frontex, the EU border agency, locates migrant rafts, then alerts the Italians, who, in turn, inform the Libyan authorities. Once captured by the Libyan coast guard, tens of thousands of these migrants are then delivered into a dozen or so detention centers run by militias.

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For the EU, and for the ship captains working the Mediterranean, the challenge of handling desperate migrants fleeing hardships in their native countries is only going to grow more pronounced.

Climate change is expected to displace 150 million people across the globe in the next 50 years. Rising seas, desertification and famine will drive the desperate to places like Europe and the U.S., testing the moral character and political imagination of countries better prepared to survive an overheated planet. The men and women working commercial ships in the Mediterranean will increasingly find themselves in an impossible bind. Even captains who abide by humanitarian law and decide to bring the migrants to Europe will sometimes face dire consequences.

In August 2020, for instance, the crew of a Danish-flagged oil tanker called the Maersk Etienne rescued 27 migrants, including a pregnant woman and a child, at the request of Maltese authorities. Malta then denied the Maersk ship entry to its port to offload the migrants, leading to a long and costly standoff that ended only after the migrants were handed over to a humanitarian organization. Italian prosecutors later alleged that Maersk had paid the organization more than $100,000 to take the migrants in a possible violation of immigration laws. Maersk called the payment a donation meant to help cover the costs of assisting with the migrants.

But most migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean never make it onto merchant ships because they are instead caught by the Libyan coast guard. Though it routinely opens fire on migrant rafts and has been tied to human trafficking, the coast guard continues to draw strong EU support. This year, the EU shipped six new speedboats to the coast guard, which uses them to capture migrants.

Even though the EU denies directly financing the abuse of migrants in Libya, an investigation by the Outlaw Ocean Project showed that EU money, typically flowing through humanitarian aid agencies, was nonetheless essential to the operation of both the coast guard and the detention centers where the migrants were kept.

I had long been interested in reporting on Libya’s gulag of migrant jails. A month before I was to head to Libya in May, I saw a tweet from an aid group about a shooting in one of Libya’s most notorious detention centers, Al Mabani, or “The Building,” located in the heart of the capital city of Tripoli. The victim was a young migrant from North Africa named Aliou Candé, who had been captured and sent there a few weeks earlier.

Through interviews, I learned that Candé was 28 and grew up on a farm near a remote village in Guinea Bissau, a place without plumbing or electricity. He was a fan of soccer and music, and in addition to speaking French and English, he was learning Portuguese in hopes of joining a brother in Portugal. He had a reputation as a dogged worker, who avoided trouble of any kind. “People respected him,” his brother Jacaria said.

But Candé would become a climate migrant — droughts in Guinea Bissau had become more common and longer; flooding became more unpredictable and damaging. His crops — cassava, mangoes and cashews — were failing and his children were hungry. Milk production from his cows was so meager that his children were allowed to drink it once a month. The shift in climate also resulted in more mosquitoes, and with them more disease.

But there was another way to survive — go to Europe. His brothers had done it. His family encouraged him to try. In the late summer of 2019, Candé set out for Europe. He took with him 600 euros, two pairs of pants, a T-shirt, a leather diary and the Quran. He told his wife he was not sure how long he’d be away, but he would be back.

Candé traveled by car across central Africa to Agadez, Niger, once called the Gateway to the Sahara. In January 2020, he arrived in Morocco, tried to pay for passage on a boat to Spain and learned that the price was 3,000 euros, more than he had. Eventually, he made it to Libya, where he heard he could take a cheaper raft to Italy. In February of this year, he and more than 100 other migrants pushed off from the Libyan shore aboard an inflatable rubber raft.

Roughly 70 miles from Libya, the Libyan coast guard rammed the migrants’ raft three times, then ordered them to climb a ladder to the ship. The migrants were taken back to land, loaded by armed guards into buses and trucks, and driven to Al Mabani.

Hundreds of detainees have died in these jails, subjected to deplorable conditions and violence by guards. Candé was killed in April when guards opened fire into part of the prison to stop a fight among detainees. He was buried in a migrant cemetery in Tripoli, more than 2,000 miles from his family in Guinea Bissau.

In Tripoli, I interviewed dozens of other migrants who had been imprisoned with Candé. They told me of cells so crowded the detainees had to sleep in shifts. They spoke of a special room where migrants were sometimes beaten while hung upside-down from ceiling beams. They shared with me the audio message that Candé recorded on a cellphone secreted into the jail where he made a final plea to his family to send the ransom he needed to be set free.

No one was punished for Candé’s death. EU officials called for an investigation, but then went silent. It all felt like one latest example of the impunity with which Libyan officials deal with some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

And then I got my own taste of Libyan impunity. A week into my reporting on Candé’s killing, I was abducted in my hotel room, and held for almost a week by Libya’s intelligence service, run by a militia called Al Nawasi. I was blindfolded, two of my ribs were broken, and I was held incommunicado for five days before my release. My crime? Reporting on migrants. Our four-person team was later forced at gunpoint by our captors to sign a confession document made out on the Libyan government’s official letterhead.

But some form of accountability from the EU and its partnership with Libya might be approaching. The conviction of the ship captain in October points to a growing discomfort with the illegality of delivering migrants back to Libya. Two cases were brought this year by migrants against Frontex, Europe’s border agency, before the Court of Justice of the European Union. The cases allege Frontex’s agents and its officials either ignored evidence of human rights abuses perpetrated by EU member states or themselves participated in the illegal turning back of migrants seeking asylum.

Of course, the EU is not alone in trying to outsource the dirty work of containing migration. In the last decade, the U.S. government has sought to reduce the flow of Latin American migrants to this country by pressuring Mexico to stop migrants at its southern border before they reach the U.S. So-called “remote vetting” for those seeking asylum also enables U.S. immigration authorities to avoid the quandary of what to do with people whose applications were denied but who come from places that lack deportation agreements. Migrants in detention centers in Mexico face extremely poor conditions, including overcrowding and lack of healthcare services, according to the Global Detention Project, a human rights organization based in Geneva.

Countries surely have a right and a duty to manage their borders, but the way the U.S. and the EU are handling waves of these migrants is ineffective and inhumane. Putting merchant ship captains in the middle of this crisis is hardly the solution. Worse still is outsourcing the problem to failed states like Libya where human rights abuses are a foregone conclusion.

Ian Urbina is an investigative journalist and the director of the Outlaw Ocean Project.


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