A transient flock on its perilous way to Europe’s shores

by
29 September 2017

Concern is growing about Libya’s control of the flow of African migrants, reports Madeleine Davies

REUTERS

Despondent: migrants in a boat arrive at a naval base after being rescued by the Libyan coastguard, in Tripoli, last month

Despondent: migrants in a boat arrive at a naval base after being rescued by the Libyan coastguard, in Tripoli, last month

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.

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