On the third of February, 2017, the informal European summit in Malta focused on Libya as a refuge for refugees. To discourage refugees from crossing the Mediterranean Sea in unseaworthy vessels, the European Union wants to invest in Libya.
To this end the summit decided to reinforce the Libyan Coast Guard, to augment the surveillance of the Libyan southern borders, to tackle the human-smugglers and to ameliorate the situation in Libya as a whole. In other words: once a refugee has set foot on Libyan soil, he will discover that not Europe but Libya shall be his new reality. And what kind of a reality that is? To understand Libya today, an inside look at the nature of al-Qaddafi’s peculiar rule is needed, argues Alison Pargeter, a British analyst and writer specializing in North Africa and the Middle-East.
Al-Qaddafi and His Laboratory
With the fall of al-Qaddafi, the Libyan state as we knew it for 41 years, fell aswell. “Gaddafi had made Libya into a reflection of himself, and saw its people as subjects in a laboratory where he could test often bizarre political, social, and economic ideas”, underpins Pargeter in her book ‘Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi’.
One of his ideas was his vision on direct democracy. Jamahiriya, meaning ‘rule of the people’, refers to ‘Qaddafi’s idea of the ideal society in which nobody would be exploited by anybody else. Even on the political level, no one could be represented by anyone else, so you wouldn’t have a parliament or political parties. Everyone would be able to take part in governing themselves―essentially a stateless society, where no one could be victimized or be exploited’, explains Pargeter in an interview given to The Boston Globe. However, behind the scenes, Qaddafi controlled everything.
“He used to represent himself as just the brother-leader without any official power or any responsibility. So if anything went wrong, he could blame the Libyans for not interpreting his ideas properly”, reports Pargeter. “He regularly used to admonish the Libyans”.
Rebuilding Libya from Scratch
The wave of revolutions in 2011 was the incentive for Libyans to let their voices be heard. Protests overflowed Tripoli on the 14th of February. The reaction of Qaddafi was to resort to repression. By that time, Libya was littered with weapons.
In 2009, for example, Belgium supplied weapons to Libya worth nearly 18 million euros. So when protest broke out, Qaddafi faced ‘a people with weapons’. A civil war was coming for him. The United Nations Security Council took up the ‘responsibility to protect’. Resolution 1973, adopted on March 17, 2011, called for a no-fly zone and an armistice. “Military interventions without clear end terms or an exit strategy, always remain precarious and dubious”, criticizes Ruddy Doom, emeritus professor at Ghent University in his chapter on Libya in ‘Het Midden-Oosten, The times they are a-changin’. “After the fall of Qaddafi, it soon became clear that the Libyans were on their own in rebuilding Libya from scratch. But it would be a miracle when, out of the blue, there would emerge one united organisation”. He concludes that ‘there were more arguments to find against a regime change through an armed intervention than arguments that were for that kind of change. Not democratization, but political stability was the main goal of the West.” Doom urges the West to take up their real responsibility. “It could not have been the purpose to protect the civilians in order to put their fate in the hands of ragtag bands of rebels.” Jean-Yves Moisseran, chief editor of the magazine Maghreb-Machrek, entertained no illusions. In July of 2011 he stated: “The tribes of the east will not die for Tripoli, and the tribes of the west will not fight for Benghazi”.
A Right Prediction
Moisseran’s prediction came true. Today, the Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by the United Nations, is struggling to assert itself in the capital, Tripoli, while two other authorities ―on the one hand, the Tobruk and al-Bayda-based government and House of Representatives (HOR) in Eastern Libya and on the other hand, the Tripoli-based National Salvation Government (NSG) and General National Congress (GNC) in Western Libya― continue their own competition for control.
But this struggle brought “a humanitarian crisis with close to half-a-million internally displaced people” with it, says Human Rights Watch. “Violence impeded civilian access to food, health care, water, sanitation and education”, reports Amnesty International. “Warring factions continued to indiscriminately shell civilian areas, mostly in Benghazi, Derna and Sirte. From March until August 2016, 141 civilian were killed in the violence, including 30 children, and 146 injured, including 28 children”, informs Human Rights Watch. “The total number of civilian casualties remained unknown, but some 20,000 were injured between May 2014 and May 2015 and at least 600 civilians were killed in 2015”, according to Amnesty International.
Libya as Refuge
“Whilst many refugees came to find employment and stability in Libya, they have found themselves caught up in further instability and conflict and often face significant protection concerns as a result of discrimination and marginalization”, reports The Humanitarian Country Team for Libya. The International Organization for Migration estimated that 771,146 migrants and asylum seekers were in Libya as of November 2016. According to UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency), at least 4,518 refugees died or went missing while crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe.
“If their boats are intercepted while crossing, they are brought back to Libya into detention centers, often subjected to physical and verbal abuse. Conditions at migrant detention remains poor, including overcrowding an insufficient food. Guards and militia members subjects them to beatings, forced labor and sexual violence’, reports Human Rights Watch. In this respect it is not surprising that Arjan Hehenkamp, director of Doctors Without Borders Netherlands, rejects the European Union’s decision. ‘To stay in Libya or to return to Libya is not an option. This is undesirable and inhuman.’ This is the refuge to which the European Union condemns refugees.
This article is written by Marlies Van Coillie