WHEN the Priest-in-Charge of Christ the King, Tripoli, the Revd Vincent Jacob Rajan looks out on to his congregation, he is sure to see new faces.
He is also certain that many will not be there for very long.“I used to pray to them not to cross, and tell them what the problems are,” he said last week. “Some listen, and some do not.” The week before, he had received a phone call confirming that three members of the congregation had successfully made it across the sea to Europe.
The United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR estimates that so far this year 2171 people have died in attempting to join their number. The risk of dying while making the Central Mediterranean sea crossing (typically from Libya to Italy) stands at one in 39.
Yet, in Mr Rajan’s experience, many feel that they have little choice but to try. One Nigerian family told him: “We don’t have jobs; life is so very hard. . . We left everything in Nigeria; so if we don’t cross now, we can’t stay here.”
He estimates that his congregation is now 80 per cent Nigerian: mostly illegal migrants who have travelled through the Saharan desert. Most do not have passports, and many will do menial work in Libya to earn enough to pay militia to take them across the sea. Some will stay for just two or three days before attempting the journey, and will approach the church seeking prayer, and Mr Rajan’s blessing, beforehand.
“Every week, I see lots of new people coming up,” he said. “We welcome them. But all these new faces will be soon disappearing. There is no permanence.”
Without papers, migrants are at risk from the militias who patrol the streets, who may imprison them and demand money. Mr Rajan is conscious of “terrible conditions” in detention centres. The lawless state of Libya is something he has experienced first-hand, having been robbed by militia while driving to visit friends, and losing all his valuables when he house was looted. The country is a jungle, he says. “Even Libyans are afraid to go out.”
Despite these conditions, European countries have decided that the best way of stemming the tide of migration to its shores is to strengthen the hand of the Libyan authorities. In January, the EU Commission said that the Libyan coastguard should “play a central role” in managing the Central Mediterranean route, and announced that it would invest in strengthening Libyan border-surveillance and training its coastguard and navy.
VINCENT RAJANProviding a welcome: the Revd Vincent Jacob Rajan
More than 70 NGOs, including Caritas Europa and the Act Alliance, which includes Christian Aid, signed a letter that expressed concern about the agreement, warning that it would “neither reduce human-rights abuses, nor end smuggling”, but would “exacerbate arrests and detention of migrants in Libya”. The plans were “a clear attempt to circumvent the EU’s international obligations, in plain disregard of the harsh consequences [that] thousands of men, women, and children would be exposed to”.
WHILE the EU is also investing in humanitarian aid to Libya, including protection and assistance for migrants and refugees, and reports that its naval force has rescued more than 40,000 people, human-rights groups express alarm about the pact with Libya.
This month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, spoke of “horrendous violations and abuses” in Libyan detention centres, including rape, and of overflowing morgues that were struggling to deal with migrants who had died of thirst or hunger, or had been tortured or beaten to death while working as slaves, or “casually murdered”.
“Others simply disappear, unrecorded, unmourned, while somewhere in a far-flung country south of the Sahara, relatives wait anxiously for news that will never come. Apart from them, hardly anyone appears to care,” Mr Al Hussein said.
Migrants who had been picked up by the Libyan coastguard did not abandon their desperate attempts to reach Europe, he said: “It just made them more desperate.” Coastguards sometimes chose not to rescue migrants in distress and had beaten and robbed others. They had shot at NGOs boats trying to rescue migrants.
These are the disturbing facts behind the dramatic fall in the numbers arriving on Italy’s shores (down by 85 per cent to 2729 in August). Italian ministers have denied accusations, including some from the Libyan government, that they are paying off militias in Libya.
Most who take the Central Mediterranean route are men, but 14 per cent are unaccompanied children. There are reports of widespread human-rights abuses, not only in Libya, but also in the journey across Africa.
In June, a video that appeared on Facebook showed hundreds of emaciated and abused Somalis and Ethiopians, including many children, huddled in a concrete room. They spoke of being beaten and tortured. Family members had received clips with requests to pay ransom fees to secure their release.
“Traffickers and smugglers continue to capitalise on Libya’s fractured society and political strife for profit,” the chief of the UNHCR Mission to Libya, Samer Haddadin, wrote, in the foreword to a report, Mixed Migration Trends in Libya.
“Libya has become the preferred gateway for irregular movement, despite also being the deadliest.”
AS THE security situation has deteriorated, fewer NGOs have been able to support refugees and migrants. But the report notes that Caritas has an office in the Dahra neighbourhood of Tripoli, next to a church where “numerous refugees and migrants attend mass”. It guides them through registration with UNHCR and provides practical help, including maternity support, food, and educational training.
“I believe that the EU must do more to help the countries from where the immigrants are leaving to find solutions for their people,” the RC Bishop of Tripoli, the Rt Revd George Bugeja, who is president of Caritas Libya, said this week.
VINCENT RAJANRefuge: Christ the King, Tripoli
“Closing the borders will not stop immigration. Immigrants leave their country trying to find a better future for themselves and their families.”
The Bishop in Egypt & North Africa, Dr Mouneer Anis, agrees. “In all Africa, there is a desire to emigrate to the north and Europe,” he said last week. “You need to tackle the roots of the problem, and develop Africa. Most of them are economic immigrants: they emigrate for a better future. If European countries want to stop this migration, they need to spend some of the money . . . on developing sub-Sarahan African countries. It is like sharing wealth: giving to them in order to develop and create job opportunities.”
Addressing the flow of arms to countries like South Sudan and Yemen was also important, he said.
One consequence of the flow of migration is a change in the make-up of congregations in Northern Africa, as people flee majority-Christian countries for majority-Muslim countries such as Egypt. “We have our churches full of these refugees,” Dr Anis said, describing how the Church was helping people from Sudan and Eritrea with food, health care, and employment.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Church is also at work. It is estimated that there are 200,000 refugees and migrants in reception centres across Italy.
Stefano Pasta, of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Roman Catholic organisation, described this week how, in partnership with other faith groups, the charity was providing shelter for migrants in Milan’s Holocaust memorial, which lies beneath the city’s central train station. He is “very worried” about the EU’s agreement with Libya, after hearing first-hand accounts of arrests and maltreatment. This week, a Sudanese man showed him scars that he said he had acquired through torture in a Libyan prison. A 15-year-old girl from Eritrea described sexual abuse.
“Europe decides not to see the problem,” Mr Pasta said. “This is not a solution.”
A better approach, he believes, is the establishment of humanitarian corridors, such as the one achieved last year, in partnership with the Italian government (News, 1 January). Yet, to date, calls for resettlement have gained little traction. Last year, the UNHCR estimated that 277,000 people were in need of resettlement in countries along the Central Mediterranean route. Just six per cent were given offers.
In the mean time, some will continue to appear in the pews of Christ the King, perhaps for just a week, before they set off for European shores, praying not to be the one in 39.