FOREIGN POLICY 20 FEB 2020
EU funds for Libyan militias forced thousands of migrants into dangerous Libyan detention centers. Now, after being evacuated, some of them are stuck as far away as Rwanda—with no idea if they will ever be resettled.
GASHORA, Rwanda—Until the day before he left Libya in October 2019, Alex was enslaved by a militia aligned with the United Nations-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. For months, the young Eritrean had been moving weapons and ammunition, cleaning, and even building a shelter for horses owned by Mohammed al-Khoja, the deputy head of the Government of National Accord’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration.
He worried about airstrikes and drones: The buzzing sound made him run for cover. He also stressed about potentially brutal punishments from men commanded by Khoja, who was also known as a vicious militia leader, making Alex frightened to disobey them. Alex, whose name has been changed for his safety, knew his proximity to fighters made him both a human shield and a target in Tripoli’s ongoing war.Trending Articles
Alex’s story is an illustration of the impacts of hardening European Union border policy, which forces refugees back to a dangerous country where they live at the mercy of Libyan militias. It demonstrates the traumas an asylum-seeker can go through before getting the chance to make a legal claim for protection, and how even the small number of people eventually chosen for evacuation from Libya suffer from long-term consequences and ongoing instability.
Even the small number of people eventually chosen for evacuation from Libya suffer from long-term consequences and ongoing instability.
Like huge numbers of his countryfolk, Alex fled indefinite national service in Eritrea’s dictatorship and traveled to Libya in the hope of reaching Europe and finding “freedom.” A U.N. commission of inquiry has previously accused the leadership of Eritrea of carrying out crimes against humanity, while describing the national service system as “slavery-like.”
After paying $16,000 in smugglers’ fees borrowed from family and friends, Alex tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, but the rubber boat he was on was intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan coast guard.
For more than a year after that, Alex was held in Triq al-Sikka detention center, the de facto headquarters of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration, which ostensibly oversees many of Libya’s migrant detention centers. (The department did not respond to a request for comment.)
After war broke out in April 2019, militiamen brought Alex across the road to work in an area they were using as a base, located in the outer perimeter of a center set up by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to house refugees before they were legally evacuated (Alex’s story was collaborated by the accounts of other refugees. Aid officials who visit Triq al-Sikka told Foreign Policy they have noticed certain detainees are often missing. UNHCR said it had heard allegations of detainees being used as forced labor in the Gathering and Departure Facility, but it could not verify them.)
In the months afterward, Alex returned to detention only for his meetings with UNHCR staff. He was interviewed and fingerprinted, and finally given good news: He would be evacuated to Rwanda.
A boda boda driver drives down the main road in Gashora, Rwanda, where hundreds of refugees are now being sheltered after they were evacuated from Libya, on Nov. 28, 2019. SALLY HAYDEN FOR FOREIGN POLICY
Over the past three years, the EU has allocated nearly 100 million euros, around $100 million, to spend on the Libyan coast guard, with the aim of intercepting and stopping boats of migrants and refugees who are trying to reach Europe. Tens of thousands of people who could have their asylum claims assessed if they managed to reach European soil have instead been returned to Libya to spend months or years in for-profit detention centers where sexual violence, labor exploitation, torture, and trafficking have been repeatedly documented. They wait, in the unlikely hope of being selected for a legal route to safety.
When questioned about the ramifications of their policy, EU spokespeople regularly say they are funding the U.N. to improve conditions for refugees and migrants. UNHCR, in turn, has said it cannot provide safety for refugees in Libya, meaning their only real hope is evacuation.
EU spokespeople regularly say they are funding the U.N. to improve conditions for refugees and migrants. UNHCR, in turn, has said it cannot provide safety for refugees in Libya, meaning their only real hope is evacuation.
Those numbers are low, though: 2,427 people last year got the option to go with UNHCR either directly to European countries or to a transit country where their cases can be considered for resettlement to Europe or North America. In contrast, nearly 1,000 refugees and migrants were returned to Libya in the first two weeks of 2020 alone.
Both Niger and Romania have previously been used as transit countries, though the number of people going to Niger have slowed because of problems processing cases. This past September, Rwanda announced it will also begin to take evacuees, following negotiations and a deal signed with the African Union and UNHCR. “Africa itself is also a source of solutions,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame, speaking about the agreement at the U.N. General Assembly last year.
The Rwandan government did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and a list of emailed questions, while African Union spokespeople did not respond to an interview request.
UNHCR is still appealing for funding, saying it hopes to evacuate 1,500 people to Rwanda by the end of 2020, with the program expected to cost nearly $27 million by then. So far, according to numbers provided by UNHCR, the EU has pledged 10 million euros, Norway just over 5 million euros, and Malta 50,000.