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Mat Nashed

The EU's 'doublethink' on refugees

Refugees grab life jackets off the Libyan coast, Nov 3, 2016 [Getty Images]

Date of publication: 22 February, 2017

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Comment: While the EU warns its own citizens against travelling to Libya, they see no problem in returning refugees to the war zone, writes Mat Nashed.

Doublethink - a concept coined by George Orwell in his masterpiece novel 1984 - is the act of holding two conflicting beliefs without ever acknowledging the contradiction.

The EU's muddled stance on Libya fits that description. At the beginning of this year, the bloc's Humanitarian and Civil Protection office (ECHO) published a factsheet about the country.

The report noted that 1.3 million people need humanitarian assistance, many of whom are internally displaced due to the conflict.

Armed groups, many of which are aligned with one of three competing authorities, pose the gravest danger. Migrants suffer additional risks due to the threat of human traffickers and extortion from smugglers.

On Tuesday, 74 people washed up dead near the town of Zawiya in western Libya. The high death toll is the latest episode of migrants drowning at sea. In 2016, a record 4,579 people died while travelling the same route.

However, the agreement to crack down on smugglers, inked by the EU with Libya's internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNC), ignored the dire situation. Just one day earlier, Italy signed their own agreement with the GNC, a fragile body with no control over major institutions and large swathes of land.

This does not seem to bother EU leaders who have entrusted Libyan coastguards with intercepting migrant boats, and return those on board to Libya's "safe refugee camps".

The problem here, is that Libya is not safe. It's a war zone.

Out of sight, out of mind

European leaders have hailed their readmission agreement with Turkey as a successful model to curtail "irregular migration". But nothing could be further from the truth.

Although the deal effectively reduced the number of irregular crossings over the Aegean Sea, it also stranded thousands of people on Greek islands where they continue to live in unbearable conditions.

Migrants in Libya face a much darker fate. Rights groups have condemned Libyan authorities for locking people up without access to legal aid, unsurprisingly, as Libya has never had a functioning justice system due to decades of autocratic rule under Muammar Gaddafi.  

The problem is that Libya is not safe. It's a war zone

The United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) also described the conditions in detention centres as "inhuman" where migrants typically cope with overcrowding, a lack of clean water, and the absence of a toilet.

Others suffer more harrowing fates such as rape, torture, or death. 

The maltreatment has not dissuaded the EU. They have instead pledged to coordinate with IOM and UNHCR to improve conditions in Libyan asylum centres. What that means in practice is unclear. Relief groups already have trouble accessing these centres from Tunisia where they are headquartered, due to the security situation in Libya.

Missing the obvious

The EU must rethink its approach. Sound policy cannot be based on its internal interests alone. Unless the crises facing Libya, the region, and migrants are addressed, more smugglers will prosper and more people will drown.

In the south of Libya, for instance, smuggling is a vital livelihood in the absence of viable economic alternatives. An EU taskforce commander told Associated Press that coastal towns make roughly $300 million from human smuggling a year. However, there is little information into how this figure was obtained.

Nevertheless, a crackdown on smugglers could destabilise the country, and the region, even more. It may also push local communities who profit from smuggling to ally with competing factions in the country, further undermining the GNC's authority.

So, what should be done?

The EU must first honour the Charter of Fundamental Rights - the EU's most powerful legal document - that states that everyone has a right to claim asylum in Europe. Those principals must be reinforced, not compromised, in times of crisis.

Policing borders is not the answer. Smugglers will simply attempt more dangerous routes, requiring higher fees from already desperate people

Member states should then, consider upping their asylum quota and allowing more migrants to work. Such a move would also work in Europe's best interests, given their aging population.

There must also be a conscious effort to support sustainable economic alternatives in order to curtail the black market - including smuggling. Doing so would mean addressing the rampant corruption and human rights abuses that are causing large numbers of people to flee.  

A good start for Europe would be to stop offering bribes to autocrats in the form of readmission agreements, for "cracking down" on migration. This tactic often emboldens them to crush public life, sometimes forcing more people to flee.

More urgently, the international community must work resolutely to end the conflict in Libya. Without a cessation of violence and a single authority governing the country, aid will not get through and UNHCR will not be able to set up refugee processing centres.

Policing borders, as seen in countless cases, is not the answer. Smugglers will simply attempt more dangerous routes, requiring higher fees from already desperate people.

The EU knows Libya is not safe, which is why they advise their own citizens against going there. But this is not just a double standard; it's a case of doublethink. And if Europe really wants to save lives, then they should think again.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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