Written by Sabina Escobar
On the 22nd of June 2022, the Spanish Delegation of Doctors Without Borders published the testimony of Romeo, a 36-year-old Cameroonian who has already tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea four times. However, it is the third attempt that he describes as the most traumatising. After the Libyan guards intercepted the zodiac in which he was crossing the sea, he was brought to a detention centre in Libya. There, he faced torture in the hands of human trafficking criminal networks. As Romeo explains, he suffered whipping with chains and beating on a daily basis for two months. Every morning, the traffickers gave him a mobile phone to call his family. While talking to his close ones, the torturers once burnt Romeo’s leg with red hot iron so that the family could hear him while screaming out of pain. He refers to this denigrating experience as hell and advises asylum seekers to never choose Libya as a transit country to reach European soil (MSF, 2022a). Unfortunately, this story only constitutes one episode of the thousands of survivors having experienced those terrible human rights abuses in detention centres. In addition, such abuses are framed in a context in which the European Union (EU) is increasingly resorting to deterrence as a way to keep irregular migrants as far as possible from the coast. At the same time, Romeo’s testimony occurs five years after the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Libya and Italy. The latter was adopted in the aftermath of the 2015 so-called refugee crisis, in a context of migration control reinforcement, to which the EU equally contributed later (ibid.), and will be further discussed in this article.
The interest behind this piece is to raise awareness about the atrocities and human rights violations that are currently being committed in detention centres for migrants and the impunity related to those through the case study of Libya, an extremely relevant transit country and country of origin in the journey of asylum seekers towards Europe. More specifically, Libya constitutes the core country of the Central Mediterranean route, accompanied by Tunisia and Algeria. Only in 2022, 52,900 irregular migrants resorted to this route, surpassing the Eastern and Western routes (European Council, 2022). For this purpose, the article will first consider the political and legal nature of detention centres. Secondly, it will tackle Libya’s detention centres as a case study. Finally, the paper will address the EU role in the fight against torture and human trafficking.
Detention centres: propitious scenes for human rights violations
Before delving into the nature of detention centres, it is of utmost importance to clarify what immigration detention means and entails, both in legal and political terms. By definition, immigration detention refers to “the deprivation of liberty for migration-related reasons” (International Detention Coalition, 2022). In the majority of states, it is in the hands of migration authorities to decide whether or not to retain a person in the territory, depending on the migration status of the latter. This power is rather civil or administrative, and works separately from the power of the police or of criminal courts. However, under international law, this measure is to be used as a last resort, while guaranteeing the respect of the principles of necessity and proportionality, based on legitimacy. But reality nowadays is far from abiding by the law. In fact, migration detention is increasing significantly even when proved unnecessary, resulting in high numbers of unlawful detention for long periods of time. According to Human Rights Watch, there is a perpetuation of those detentions, which may last from months to years (Eyes on Europe, 2020). At the same time, those are often below international standards of decent and proper conditions.
If we focus on the nature of detention centres, we could say that the latter acts as a facilitator for human rights violations, due to multiple factors. On the one hand, the absence of a central database of migration detention records and the variation in the interpretation of detention by states (for instance, many do not include police cell detentions) make the availability of statistics very difficult. On the other hand, “many states practicing detention, however, also have active interest in maintaining a degree of obscurity. Immigration detention facilities are […] among the sites in which human rights violations are most likely to be committed by liberal democracies” (Fiske, 2016). At a global scale, this practice is increasing without precedent. An additional problem is the lack of structural safeguards when conducting immigration detention, leading to unacceptable conditions for those who, according to authorities, fall outside the state system. In relation to the obscurity above-mentioned, “the detention of immigrants is seldom a transparent practice” (Cornelisse, 2010). Particularly, the public has little or no access to information about detention facilities and those are often located in isolated spots. In this regard, public awareness about immigration detainees is difficult to reach.
Another aspect to consider is the wide range of techniques that governments deploy whenever they feel challenged in regards to the use of immigration detention, in order to circumvent criticism. The main argument to which authorities resort is that it is necessary to practice migrant detention in the name of national security and sovereignty (Bigo, 2002). To go further, whenever governments face criticism in regards to the conditions of detention facilities, they often restrict the access to the latter for NGOs, among other observers. This is particularly true in the case of informal detention centres. In Libya, those are often run by militias and therefore escape from the direction of the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (Acaps, 2021). In addition, states resort to the criminalisation of migration through political discourses (Cornelisse, 2010). Unlike mental health facilities or prisons, which also constitute detention sites, immigration detention centres lack enforceable legal protections as well as statutory scrutiny (Parkin, 2013).
To conclude, migrants experiencing detention in those centres are highly exposed to human rights abuses and violations, not only due to the nature of the detention facilities, but also because of their status of detainees, accompanied by social isolation, lack of citizenship and a political environment in which they are often unwelcome and portrayed as criminals (Fiske, 2016).
Libya: an extreme case study
The human rights situation of migrants in Libya needs to be analysed in the context of the EU’s external migration governance, including its external border control policies. Located in the North of the African continent, Libya constitutes an important transit country and country of origin for migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers. In March 2022, the UN Human Rights Council released a report based on an Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya. One of the report’s main conclusions is that both systematic human rights violations and the culture of impunity in most territories of Libya are preventing the country from a real transition to democracy, peace, and the rule of law (UN Human Rights Council, 2022). Those two aspects are of extreme importance to understand the dynamics of the externalisation of EU borders and the core role of the MoU between Italy and Libya in this process.
Five years ago, in February 2017, the Italian and the Libyan government signed this EU-sponsored agreement. In 2020, it was renewed with a provision of three further years. However, the MoU derives from the securitisation of migration, as it is portrayed as a threat to national security. In this sense, it seems that the agreement is looking for the deployment of deterrence as a strategy: instead of providing migrants, particularly asylum seekers given the status of irregular migrants, with protection, the MoU attempts at keeping this community as far as possible from the European coast. More specifically, Italy and the EU have been working in cooperation with the Libyan Coastguard in order to increase maritime surveillance, accompanied by financial support as well as technical assets. “Since 2017, Italy has set aside €32,6 million for international missions to support the Libyan Coastguard, with €10,5 million allocated in 2021” (MSF, 2022b). As a consequence of this bilateral agreement, refugees and asylum seekers’ human rights are constantly jeopardised as the efforts of Libyan coastguards to intercept migrants at sea result in the latter being brought to detention centres.
If we consider Libya both as a state where human rights violations occur on a daily basis with impunity for the government and as a potential destination for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, Libyan centre detentions for migrants are far from idyllic destinations. In fact, those facilities constitute the crossroads between torture and human trafficking, in which criminal networks find their perfect business.
Nevertheless, it is essential to mention that according to Statewatch (2022) episodes of torture and human trafficking in Libyan detention centres are not punctual, but rather belong to an established modus operandi, which often resorts to three steps. In the first place, the interception at sea takes place by the Libyan coastguards which are often accompanied by risky procedures. In the second place, the returning of the intercepted migrants occurs. However, instead of being sent back to their respective countries of origin, they are kept in detention centres in Libya. Those are managed by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, a branch of the Ministry of the Interior. Once in the detention centre, there is a high risk that the migrants are sold to criminal groups. The third step of this operational model corresponds to migrants’ exposure to torture and ill-treatment. Those practices take place for the purpose of extortion and other forms of exploitation, including forced prostitution, forced labour or kidnapping for ransom, among others (Statewatch, 2022).
Human rights protection or the outsourcing of responsibilities: two sides of the same coin
In regards to torture and human trafficking, the EU has developped several legal mechanisms in order to guarantee the respect and protection of human rights. Focusing on torture, the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which constitute the base of EU law, prohibit the use of torture. Specifically, Article 4 of the former and Article 3 of the latter establish that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (2000; 1953). Those two legal instruments being binding, the EU has equally developed other tools to various non-binding initiatives, which meant to raise awareness on the issue of torture and actively fight it as a union. For instance, there is the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987), to which member states of the Council of Europe are signatories. In the case of human trafficking, the EU has also taken initiatives to tackle it. Particularly, the union has developed the EU Strategy on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, a project envisioned to take place from 2021 to 2025 and belonging to the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive. Among other objectives, it aims at promoting international cooperation to fight trafficking. In addition, it attempts to break traffickers’ business models fighting criminal business models and tackling the culture of impunity through criminal justice (European Commission, 2021).
However, in spite of the existence of such legal standards and initiatives, the externalisation of border control by the EU is ceding its responsibility of assessing asylum requests to transit countries such as Libya, where the respect of human rights is not guaranteed for migrants and where their fate is often reduced to a detention centre. While the union seems to be highly involved in financial terms through the sponsorship of projects, its actions are far from enough. Since the 2015 so-called refugee crisis, the EU has devoted €408 million for migration-related projects in Libya (MSF, 2019). Through the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), half of the funds have gone to the protection and assistance of refugees and asylum seekers. Nevertheless, the main objective of the EU still seems to be to keep migrants as far as possible from European soil through policies of deterrence. The complexity of the Libyan context, including security challenges, lack of transparency or political constraints, equally makes it difficult for the funds to meet their goal. At the same time, this situation contributes to limiting the access of humanitarian organisations and NGOs to the field. An additional problem in the fight against torture and human trafficking in Libyan detention centres is the lack of political support by EU member states to powerful institutions such as the IOM or the UNHCR (ibid.).
This article has assessed the human rights context in migration detention centres in Libya. We have seen that those facilities act as facilitators for human rights abuses, particularly creating a propitious space for torture and human trafficking, which are in most occasions interconnected. This is linked to insufficient databases on migration detention records, governments’ interest in a certain degree of obscurity, the lack of structural safeguards when conducting migration detention, the restriction of access to detention facilities to NGOs, little enforceable legal protections, and the vulnerable status of detainees.
Libya, until today, constitutes a primary case study, in which its collaboration with the EU migration governance in exchange of financial aid and technology has been at the expense of refugees and asylum seekers trying to reach European soil. The MoU between Libya and Italy has been an important instrument, reinforcing the above-mentioned situation. In this regard, torture and human trafficking have been at the crossroads of migration detention centre in the North-African country.
Finally, the EU has been contributing to the fight against torture and migration through both binding and non-binding instruments, as well as through remarkable financial aid. Nevertheless, this solution is far from being ideal since numerous aspects of the process remain untackled. In my personal opinion, as long as the EU continues to securitise migration and to implement policies based on containment, the situation is unlikely to change in Libyan detention centres, where the abuse of human rights will continue to take place without impunity. I believe the EU should bring to an end its externalisation policies as the core instruments of its migration control governance. Not only do those policies and bilateral agreements allow the EU and its member states to transfer their responsibility to assess asylum seekers’ demands into the hands of non-EU countries, but equally allow them to maintain this community far from EU soil at the expense of the protection of its fundamental rights.