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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Operation Sofia: causing deaths at sea

Those of you who have been receiving these updates for a little while now will be well aware that the EU’s policy in Libya has less to do with the safety of refugees, and more to do with preventing people from entering the EU. This goes for the UK – still a member until March 2019, and a leading ‘light’ in the programme to hand cash to Libya in exchange for preventing people getting across the Mediterranean – as much as any other member.

This piece is a long read, but details exactly how and where the policy is in effect, what its results have been so far, and notes that even as desperate men, women and children attempt to flee Libyan ‘detention centres’ – some of which are run by war-lords, and which organisations including Amnesty and even the EU’s own investigative teams have concluded are centres of ransom, torture and murder – NGOs rescuing refugees on the sea are facing increased physical and political pressure to withdraw.

In 2016, 46,796 people were rescued from the sea by NGOs – 10,000 more than by the Italian Navy or coastguard.

To be as fair as possible to the Italian government, we should note that it was the first – and one of only three to date – to dismiss as nonsense the claims by Frontex that NGOs were ‘collaborating’ with people-smugglers, and that although it set in place the end of the Mare Nostrum programme, this was because despite EU promises that the cost of the programme (which was supposed to be an EU-wide activity to rescue refugees from the Mediterranean) would be shared equally across the bloc, in fact Italy was the sole contributor.

Indeed, when it ended – with support from Germany and other EU states – the UK’s Baroness Anelay claimed it was ‘good’ that the practise of rescuing people from the sea should end, because it was a ‘pull factor’ for refugees. As if the possibility of rescue was encouraging people to make the journey.

But the same government was responsible for the creation of a ‘code of conduct’ for NGOs (detailed here in July) which included demands that NGOs rescuing people must not use flares or phones, and must not transfer refugees to boats bound for Italian ports. Clearly, these measures would have risked the lives of everyone at sea, NGO workers and refugees alike.

Equally, Operation Sofia, which replaced Mare Nostrum, is believed to have hurt more than it has helped.

Though there have been arrests made under the scheme, (110 people to date in two years) and some 470 vessels ‘neutralized’ (the EU is paying the Libyan coastguard to blow up vessels used in smuggling people, a fate which does not apply to vessels smuggling drugs and other contraband materials), critics note that the organisers of the smuggling have been able to continue unaffected, and that the sole result of destroying sea-worthy vessels is that far flimsier boats, more likely to collapse under the weight and pressure of open sea voyages, are now being used instead.

It is, as always, worth noting that even now, the ‘official’ Libyan government (forced upon the state by the UN, which in turn had it foisted upon it in December 2015, when the US decided it would be easier to bomb IS in Sirte if it had a ‘friendly’ government which would invite it to do so) remains in ‘lock-down’ in a Tripoli naval base, unrecognised in the East, where a rival ‘government’ in Tobruk, propped up by war-lord Khalifa Haftar, claims jurisdiction, and in the South, where criminal gangs, and pro- and anti-Ghaddifi militias fight one another for control, united only in their refusal to accept the right of either the Tripoli or Tobruk ‘governments’ to pass laws.

And Libya is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and does not offer asylum to refugees, making a mockery of EU attempts to help refugees remain in Libya.

More stark is the fact that the ongoing war between the country’s West and East – and the chaos in its South – is so bad that only Italy has any consular presence there (every other government with any interest is currently based in Tunis).

Yet the EU is insisting that refugees must not leave for the EU. Its policy is that either refugees return to Sudan, Eritrea, Chad and a number of other states which they have fled because of violence and oppression including murder and torture, or remain in Libya, a state now in the fourth year of its second civil war since 2010.

As a result, refugees are faced with three options: return ‘home’ to be bombed, shot at and/or tortured; remain in Libya, to be shot at, kidnapped, tortured and possibly killed; or take their chances on boats of which EU policies have reduced the strength and capacity. The final option is of course the ‘best’.

And its result is thousands and thousands of deaths at sea: 2,716 so far this year; 3,709 last year; 3,184 in 2015; and 3,162 in 2014

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