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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Open Arms? Closing borders and refusing to talk is handing Europe to the far-Right

The – justified – outrage over the impounding of the ship ‘Open Arms’ has its roots in Italy’s refusal to make a case for aiding refugees, a failure which is also at the heart of Italy’s recent descent into populism.

We examine how refusing even to have the debate can hand victory to those you know you are correct to oppose...

Italy and the EU: desperation fed by refusal

On 24 March (Saturday), protestors from around the world gathered to call for the immediate release of the vessel Open Arms, which Italy had seized on 18 March from the Spanish ngo Proactiva Open Arms.

In June last year, Italy’s government – then headed by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni – threatened to close all of the state’s ports to vessels operated by international ngos.

Though we warned at the time that the statement was likely to be a reflection of growing public unrest – fuelled by extremists and populists looking for an easy way to ‘win’ support from the government, few people believed that Italy would actually follow through on the threat, because the INGO boats and their crews were dedicated to saving lives – literally pulling men, women and children who have committed no crime, from the Mediterranean.

The idea that an EU member state would seriously attempt to prevent people from saving the lives of those fleeing war, terror, chaos, and in many cases the real threat of death due to starvation or treatable disease, was to most, so impossibly inhuman that it was dismissed.

MSF’s Dutch coordinator Marcella Kraay, who at that time was working on a Mediterranean rescue boat, MS Aquarius, chartered by ingo SOS Mediteranee, treated the idea with suspicion, but also saw it as a means to help ‘encourage’ the EU to do far more to help refugees.

She said: ‘If this is indeed the case, if anything it sounds more like a cry for help from the Italian government towards the EU.

‘That goes along with what we’ve always asked for, which is for the EU to organise dedicated search and rescue in the Mediterranean. Until that happens we are forced to be out there because people are in danger, they’re going to drown if we’re not there.’

Ms Kraay’s opinion was understandable. Not only for the reason noted above, but because in fact Italy was the ‘front-line’ state in the international refugee response last summer. Within days of the threat being made, UN figures suggested that 70,000 men, women and children had arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year, compared to 8,771 in Greece in the same period.

And in fact, while 2015, the year in which, for some observers, the refugee situation ‘began’, saw 856,723 people enter Greece, compared to 153,842 who landed in Italy, this was an enormous abnormality: Italy had been experiencing new entrants who had left the north of Libya and Tunisia, usually landing on the island of Lampedusa, for at least three decades, with the number increasing rapidly in 2011, when the first Libyan Civil war broke out.

In 2014, it received 170,100 people, compared to 41,038 entering Greece. In 2016, 181,436 to 173,450 new arrivals in Greece; and last year 29,884 people arrived in Greece by sea, compared to 119,396 arriving in Italy. (From 1 January to 23 March this year, 4,286 people have landed in Greece; 6,163 in Italy)

Of course, from a human perspective, this is also a disastrous situation. Because while the straits between Western Turkey and the Greek Aegean islands can be treacherous, and have claimed far too many lives, the journey from Libya and Tunisia to Italy is far longer, and as a result, also far more dangerous.

From 1 January 2014, a total of 1,699 people have died attempting to reach Greece. 13,457 have drowned while trying to get to Italy in the same period.

And Italy also had – and to an extent still has – reason to have felt it was facing this issue alone (though, we should note, nowhere near as ‘alone’ as the men, women and children adrift on the high sea, in an effort to escape death in their homelands).

Mare Nostrum: our sea, but Italy’s responsibility?

On 31 October 2014, Mare Nostrum ('our sea'), which had been set up just over a year before (18 October 2013) in order to rescue people who would otherwise die in the Mediterranean, was brought to a close. The Italian government had started the scheme following a number of disasters at sea which killed high numbers of refugees, but had been promised EU funding and support, which – not unsurprisingly to those who follow the EU’s humanitarian programmes – was enthusiastically granted at first, and then dried up within months.

Mare Nostrum certainly saved lives: during the year of its operation, some 150,000 people were escorted to Italian ports. And it ended, in grim confirmation of the absolute lack of foresight of much of the human race, just as the largest recorded movement of human beings across the Mediterranean began.

In 2015, ten times as many people died on the Mediterranean as in the 12 months before, and in April of 2015, more than 1,100 people died in one week alone.

The UK’s Baroness Anelay stated that it was ‘good’ that Mare Nostrum had ended, because it was a ‘pull factor’ for refugees: that is, that people were actually attempting to make a dangerous sea crossing not to escape war, but because there was a possibility that they might be rescued. In the same way, we must assume, the Baroness might believe that ambulances are a ‘pull’ factor for people losing limbs, or contracting life-threatening diseases.

In any event, the experience certainly contributed to a sense from Italy that it was virtually alone in efforts to prevent deaths, and fears that it would also be forced to respond alone to the needs of those who arrived.

Both feelings – of being ‘ignored’ and of the EU’s willingness to itself ignore the lives and needs of those attempting to cross its borders – were intensified by the EU-Turkey Deal.

We have talked at great length about this deal, the reasons why the EU turned to it (a breakdown in the EU’s internal structure, and the basic refusal of some states, most notably the UK, Denmark, Poland and Hungary, but also others at other points) and we will of course return to it for as long as the deeply immoral and pragmatically-insupportable ‘project’ continues.

But for the purposes of this piece, it should suffice to note that the Deal led Italy to stop engaging the EU with arguments in favour of saving and improving lives, and began instead to argue that if Greece’s borders were to be ‘protected’ from innocent, water-logged and desperate men, women and children, Italy should be granted the same ‘protection’.

Just as disastrously, Italy’s politicians also began to stop making arguments in favour of assisting refugees to stay alive and find safety to their own voters, the Italian public. This, in turn, left the floor to those who instead sought to paint refugees as ‘migrant competitors’ at best, and terrorist maniacs at worst (and far more regularly).

Once again, the EU did not help matters.

In January, it announced plans for a system under which the Libyan coastguard – like its Turkish equivalent – is paid by the EU not to save lives, but to operate as a sea militia, using any means at its disposal to prevent refugees leaving Libyan waters (in some ways, this is even worse than the EU-Turkey Deal, because Libya is fast approaching the fifth year of its second Civil War this decade and because of the widespread and systematic abuse of refugees in the North African state – itself facilitated by the war, the chaos it inflicts on Libya, and the armed ‘strongmen’ it throws into positions of power: the EU is not even able to pretend – as it does with Turkey – that Libya is a safe ‘third state’: it is literally paying a coastguard to stop people escaping war).

This came into effect in April 2017.

Frontex, the EU, and Italy’s simultaneous cry for help, and silence

But before that, in December 2016, the EU ‘border control force’ Frontex issued a report ‘JO EPN TRITON 2016 Biweekly Analytical Report No.22’ (dated 9 December 2016), in which it claimed that humanitarian aid workers crewing boats on the Mediterranean were ‘colluding with people smugglers’ – a claim which has been comprehensively dismantled, (it rests on the unrecorded testimony of two men who were rescued in an operation overseen by Frontex staff, that the people who rescued them were people smugglers: even were the claims of what was said at the interview definitely true, or the claim that they were smugglers certainly correct, this would not be evidence that any aid organisation worked or works with smugglers, and in fact neither of even those rather low bars has been cleared) but which is sadly in keeping with EU claims that rescuing people ‘helps encourage people-smuggling’.

In fact, one of the major factors ‘helping to encourage people-smuggling’ was the ongoing conflicts across large parts of Africa, as well as in Syria, and the sporadic but regular violence in Gaza between Palestinians and Israelis. Also playing a part was ongoing economic inequality so severe that men, women and children starve to death every day on a planet which has so far never failed to produce enough food for all.

And one of the major factors causing people to drown was in fact the EU’s insistence on targeting smugglers’ boats, rather than helping people not to be forced to rely on smugglers for their escape. Because by seizing and blowing up boats (the EU had, in the 18 months to June 2017, seized 300 boats it claims were used by smugglers) the EU was in fact making it far more likely that refugees would be forced to attempt to travel in vessels completely unfit for long sea journeys, meaning far more people were likely to enter the sea itself, and drown.

The UK’s Financial Times carried the Frontex claim in a story, which it removed it from its website a week later, and issued an apology and clarification.

Even the EU, through its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, dismissed the idea. Ms Mogherini commented: ‘We do not have as the European Union evidence of that kind.’

Even Frontex’s spokesperson Ewa Monclure, when pressed on the claim, said: ‘No, we don’t [believe that aid organisations work with smugglers] and we never said that,’ though this claim was rather undermined in February 2017, when Frontex issued a 64-page risk analysis report (‘Risk Analysis for 2017’) which said: ‘Rescue operations end up helping criminals because it strengthens their (smugglers’) business model by increasing the chances of success.’

That is, people rescuing people from being killed in the sea is not to be considered an act of life-saving courage, but as an ‘aid to people-smuggling’. This is the current position of the EU.

In Italy, despite the withdrawal of the story by the FT, and Frontex being forced to deny that it had ever even made the statement, Sicilian Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro opened an investigation in February, stating in public that he had ‘evidence of phone calls between smugglers and rescuers’.

By 3 May, he was forced to admit that he in fact had no evidence at all, and claimed that his statement that he had proof was in fact, ‘a hypothesis’ he had shared.

But he added – as if in place of evidence – that: ‘The profiles of some NGO crew members are not exactly philanthropic.’

Even so, the damage caused by the report, and the seeming rush to accept it entirely at face value, combined with the Italian government’s failure to talk about the moral and economic reasons Italy could and should help – and would benefit from helping – refugees, was extensive, and further poisoned the national attitude to the arrival of people by boat.

And so to Italy’s June threat to close its ports to rescue ships operated by NGOs.

In fact, the state’s government appeared to begin the month in a conciliatory mood, with the state’s interior under-secretary, Domenico Manzione, stating on 8 June that: ‘We are not against search and rescue, search and rescue is our duty and we welcome the fact that NGOs are involved there, we can't thank them enough.’

But he noted also that: ‘We need to make sure that those who are active in the Mediterranean, play by the same rules and follow orders. Some NGOs, including some active in the Sicilian channel, are disobeying orders by not bringing rescued people to the first port of safety.

‘It has to be the first safe port ... the port of their choosing might not have the necessary infrastructure.’

And early in July, Italy’s Undersecretary of State for EU Affairs, Sandro Gozi, called publicly for the refugee response to be ‘regionalised’ – that is, for France, Spain, Greece and Malta to open their ports to rescued refugees, rather than as at that stage (and at present) rescued men, women and children being taken exclusively to Italian ports – and for more refugees to be relocated from Italy to other EU member states (the EU agreed, in September 2015, to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Turkey, within two years. Even now, in March 2018, the total number is just 33,684 – of which, 12,011 have been moved from Italy: this is unacceptable not just – or in fact primarily – because of the EU’s broken promise, or because of the position in which Italy and Greece are left as a result, but because the men, women and children in question are forced to remain in camps awaiting an opportunity to rebuild their lives: get jobs, re-start school…).

Even as the Italian government was calling for assistance from fellow EU member-states (itself hardly a positive message about refugees for Italian voters), Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister, and already in place as party leader and lead candidate for the next Italian elections, to take place on 4 March 2018, called for a ‘closed, set number of migrants’ and to ‘boost partnerships with asylum-seekers’ origin countries’.

Nicola Molenti, of the fascist Northern League, claimed – entirely wrongly (and entirely irrelevantly, as not only is there nothing wrong with being an ‘economic migrant’, but anyone attempting to enter a state to escape starvation is in fact an economic migrant) – that the refugees were a ‘biblical invasion’ and that: ‘all but five per cent of the people to have entered Italy in the last 12 months are economic migrants’.

The League, and 5-Star, a populist movement less openly and obviously Right-wing than the League, but nonetheless stoking the flames of suspicion of ngo rescue crews (its slogan was that these are ‘sea taxis for migrants’) were taking their lead from the far-Right Dutch think tank, the Gefira Foundation, which had begun, in December 2016, to attack ngos rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean, without a single shred of evidence, but with the question: ‘They all claim to be on a rescuing mission, but are they?’.

The Italian parties also accepted as fact – or at least claimed to – a youtube video, ‘The Truth About Migrants’ made by an Italian student Luca Donadel, which claimed ngos were profiting from sea rescues. This video included demonstrably false claims about how close to the Libyan shore rescue boats sailed, but despite its glaring inaccuracies, was widely viewed and picked up unquestioningly by newspapers and broadcasters in Italy.

The Italian government, however, chose not to comment. And the EU granted it nothing, except to allow it to write its new ‘code of conduct’ for organisations carrying out Mediterranean rescues.

The EU’s position on the situation in Libya is an extraordinary stance for a community which has – to date – presented itself as a protector of human rights, freedoms and democracy.

It is worth noting here that in 2016, 46,796 people were rescued from the Mediterranean by NGOs – more than 10,000 more than either the Italian navy or coastguard managed, and almost 50,000 people who would certainly be dead without their aid. In other words, the EU was, by denying Italy any option but to write its ‘code of conduct’ not only abandoning Italy, but also and definitely ensuring that ngo operations would be less effective, and therefore more people would be at risk of death.

The EU and Libya – living a life of deliberate blindness

Not only that, but the EU certainly knew by April 2017, if not before, what the situation was like for refugees in Libya, with one EU representative who went on a multi-party visit to Libya in that month, reporting: ‘The conditions are in line with expectations — poor sanitary conditions, insufficient space and hygiene to hold more than 1,000 refugees in detention. The small area dedicated to distributing medication was a sad sight.’

The representatives’ reports also stated that the refugees they spoke to said they had been held in Libyan detention centres in some cases for well over a year, and had had their possessions – money, cell phones, ID papers – stolen even before they reached Libya.

Libyan politicians, meanwhile, confirmed that the refugees often have to pay a ransom to the operators of the detention centres before they will be allowed out, while others are sold between centres.

The IOM, in the same month, reported that refugees in Libya were being sold into slavery by the war-lords who ran the ‘detention centres’ – in fact centres of torture and often murder.

The ERU appeared not to have noticed this report, even though every single humanitarian organisation on Earth saw and read it.

As noted before, and on this site and others we have worked on, the situation in Libya is simply unacceptable for refugees. Or, indeed, for Libyan nationals. The state’s first civil war saw most of the cities in the North (which contains all but two of Libya’s major urban areas) largely or at least partially destroyed, not least by concentrated bombing raids.

In the years that followed, NATO states withdrew, and failed to unfreeze the nation’s finances, which combined with a prolonged (non-violent) battle between its two major new political parties, and the absolute refusal of the revolutionary ‘khetibas’ – unregulated forces, with no state control, who had led the ground-war against Ghaddafi – to give up their weapons, saw Libya slide ever-closer to unregulated and arguably unregulatable chaos.

In May 2014, Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general, and once friend of Ghaddafi, claimed to have taken control of the Libyan army, and launched simultaneous attacks on the state capital Tripoli, and second-largest city Benghazi. He was resisted by the extremist al-Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia (later the Shura Council) in Benghazi, and by khetibas and parts of the Libyan military elsewhere in the country. In the course of the (ongoing – now approaching its fifth consecutive year) war, IS also seized control of two Libyan cities, Sirte and Derna, being removed from the former by Dernan groups themselves claiming affiliation with Al-Qaeda, and from Sirte by a combination of NATO airstrikes, and khetiba-led ground warfare. Haftar and his forces did not take part in any of the battles against IS.

In short, the EU knows that Libya is an unacceptable – in many cases impossible – place for refugees to live; that when we talk about war-lords running detention centres for refugees we are not exaggerating, and yet its policy is to prevent them leaving the country, claiming to care about ‘safety’ and ‘people-smugglers’, but instead simply preventing people from leaving a war-ravaged state where they are being tortured, imprisoned, raped, sold into slavery and in many cases murdered.

(it is worth noting here, that the difference between a ‘people-trafficker’ and a people smuggler is that the trafficker forces people to be transported, often with the intention of selling them into slavery at their arrival-point; smugglers do not kidnap people, they carry people who want to be carried, and they do not sell their ‘cargoes’ into slavery. The use of the word ‘cargoes’ is deliberate, as smugglers are not necessarily decent human beings, many of them treat refugees despicably, many also know that the boats into which they place people are unsafe – as do the people themselves – and all charge far more than the journey is worth. The point, however, is that treating the situation as if the problem is that people are being forced onto boats is nonsense: they are not. They feel they have to leave, not because of the smugglers, but because the alternative seems, in many cases, worse even than death)

The code of conduct

On 4 September, the Italian government presented humanitarian organisations with the ‘code of conduct’ it demanded they follow, and a warning that any who refused, would be denied access to Italian ports.

The code banned ngos from entering Libyan waters (which was already illegal, and was not done by aid organisations except under immediate emergency circumstances – this clause was entirely in response to the widely-accepted falsehoods claimed and promoted in ‘The Truth About Migrants’), and demanded that their vessels would allow armed police to board on demand to investigate ‘people trafficking’ (an undeliverable goal in most cases as the Italian police simply does not have the resources to carry out this dubiously-useful pastime).

Perhaps most damaging of all, the code denied rescuers the right to transfer rescued refugees to larger ships, and return to search and rescue duties. Instead, the vessels would have to return to port every time they made a rescue, dropping off the people they had saved, before being able to head back out to sea.

This demand makes almost no sense at all. It certainly does not prevent ‘people smuggling’, or the in any-case non-existent collusion between aid organisations and smugglers.

But what it does – actively and openly – is reduce the capacity of rescue operations, by taking the small, manoeuvrable and fast vessels out of action, meaning any emergency is far more likely to take place when no-one can reach the men, women and children who are likely to drown. In other words, the clause actively promotes the likelihood of innocent human beings dying at sea.

Amnesty International characterised the code as ‘part of a concerted smear campaign’ against ngo rescue operations. While we are willing to say it may not have been ‘part’ of the campaign, it certainly bears evidence of being the product of that campaign, both in Italy and elsewhere.

German charity Seawatch, however, called the plan a ‘desperate reaction’ by ‘a country (Italy) abandoned on the front-line of a crisis by the EU’.

The organisation announced plans to deploy a second boat to the Mediterranean, and its CEO, Axel Grafmanns, added: ‘The EU is wilfully letting people drown in the Mediterranean by refusing to create a legal means of safe passage and failing to even provide adequate resources for maritime rescue. The NGOs are currently bearing the brunt of the humanitarian crisis and they are being left alone (to do this).’

By this point, however, Italy had already seized one of the 13 vessels being used by ngos to rescue refugees.

Italy’s first seizure - Iuventa

On 2 August, the crew of the Iuventa, a vessel operated by Jugend Rettet (Youth Saves), received a call from the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Centre (MRCC), which directs the sea rescues between Libya and Italy.

It instructed the Iuventa to sail to a position in which a small dinghy needed assistance. When the crew arrived, an Italian coastguard boat had already, oddly, reached the dinghy, and rescued the two Syrian people who had been aboard. The coastguard claimed that because a second rescue call had gone out, they could not take the Syrians to Lampedusa, and requested Iuventa, a smaller and less well-equipped vessel, to carry them there instead.

The crew aimed to pass them on to other vessels, and return to their own search and rescue activities, but every ship heading north – extremely unusually – refused to take them. At the 12-mile line which marks the boundary of Italian waters, the ship waited and asked the authorities to send a small boat to collect the two people.

This was refused, and they were instructed to come to port. As soon as they entered Italian waters, five boats – including the vessel whose crew had claimed they were needed at an emergency and could not take the Syrians to Lampedusa – surrounded them, and forced Iuventa to port.

This extraordinary trap was laid, according to Italian prosecutors, because two former police officers working on a boat claim to have seen Iuventa crew members talking to someone they presume to be ‘people traffickers’ (they are certainly not that, whatever they are – at worst, they are people smugglers), and that the Iuventa towed a wooden boat to Libyan waters, where it could be used again by smugglers.

The men say they have photographs, but Philipp Kuelker of Jugend Rettet said: ‘All the evidence collected has been presented and interpreted in an erroneous manner. These witnesses are known to be members of far-Right groups, which is why they were on the water to begin with. Our position was in line with the coastguard’s instructions, and the boat we moved was only towed a short distance, so it was not in the way of us as we navigated.

‘The people we talked to are not smugglers, but armed criminals, who try to pick up outboard motors after or even during rescues.

‘We demand the immediate release of our ship, the dropping of any charges against the organisation or crew members and that those responsible for this despicable smear campaign publicly apologise.’

No such apology was made, and seven months later, Iuventa – a ship that rescued 14,000 people in 14 months – is now rusting in a Sicilian dock, while prosecutors claim to be ‘searching for evidence’.

Open Arms, the vessel operated by Spanish aid organisation Proactivia Open Arms, was only the second ship to be seized by Italy, when it was immobilised at Pozzallo on 18 March on the orders of another prosecutor in Catania, Sicily.

In between the two seizures – neither strongly backed by evidence, as we will see – events have not been kind to the EU’s decision to pay Libyan coastguards to stop desperate men, women and children from fleeing war by any means necessary.

Libya – an EU prison in North Africa

At this point, we should perhaps note that our experience on the Mediterranean refugee crisis began in Tunisia and Libya in 2011, when the state’s first Civil War was underway. It offered a perspective on the situation which was perhaps deeper than that experienced ‘from afar’, and drove home a point that we had not previously fully considered – that Libya was both a destination and stepping-stone for refugees from across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

This experience and the considerations it demanded have also been central to our analyses and work related to refugee movements from the East, including in several of the states responding to that movement and its causes.

We do recognise that ‘exploratory visits’ of a few days at a time – however well-intentioned – cannot be expected to deliver the same level of insight as such experience and in-depth, on-the-ground dedicated research, predictive modelling and response planning.

But we have – through aid organisations, as well as alongside them; directly as well as indirectly – been attempting to share the expertise we have; the risks as well as how the worst outcomes may be avoided, with politicians across the European Union and beyond.

And the EU itself has (as noted above) had direct evidence from its own staff and representatives about just how dire the situation was in Libya for refugees (and the state’s citizens), as well as access to IOM reports from April 2017 which detailed the selling of refugees into slavery in Libya.

Were that not enough (and if not, we are entitled to ask ‘why not?’) EU representatives and politicians were also present at the Rome ‘Ministerial Meeting for Libya’ of December 2015 (to which not one single Libyan person was invited), at which the US demanded in public that a way must be found for it to attack IS in Sirte (and its then Secretary of State John Kerry was hear in private to yell: ‘Someone find me someone I can work with!’ – the sole reason that Libya’s third ‘government’, the ‘Government of National Accord, which is not really a government, is the product of no accord and sits as one of three ‘governments’ in a state which is hardly even a nation at present was set up) – a clear indication of the level of ‘safety’ available to civilians in Libya.

We might also conclude that it is a more than remote possibility that the reason that absolutely no EU member state – except Italy, whose ‘Imperial past’ is tied up with Libya – has any embassy or diplomatic presence in the state (instead basing staff in Tunis) is that the state is simply too insecure to send people to, even if they are paid. Yet it has prosecuted a policy of preventing innocent men, women and children from leaving it, unless to return to the oppressive and conflict-riven states, including Sudan, Chad and Eritrea – all of which the EU has offered cash to ‘repatriate’ refugees and stop people escaping – they have fled.

Equally, its policy of handing the Libyan ‘coast guard’ (in the absence of any nationally-recognised government, such a service can at best only be a projected desire, rather than a single cohesive unit) ‘cash and training’ was always – and openly – focussed on preventing people from travelling by any means, and arresting any suspected smugglers: at best subverting a life-saving service into a sea police force working on the EU’s behalf; at worst (and in fact) subverting that force into a sea militia to add to the many land militias operating across Libya to the detriment of human life.

It should, therefore, have been a significant embarrassment to the EU when, on 7 November, search and rescue NGO Seawatch was attacked while attending an emergency distress call from a dinghy carrying refugees off the Tripoli coast, was attacked by the Libyan coastguard.

This was not the first time such an attack had taken place, nor was it the last. But in this attack, the ‘coastguard’ refused all radio contact with the Seawatch crew, and the Italian navy, which had sent a helicopter to respond to the call, and while most refugees were rescued from the water, the Libyan vessel was in such a rush to leave the scene that it actually dragged one person along its starboard deck as it sped away. That refugee was, in the end, rescued by the Italian naval helicopter.

In its report of the incident, Seawatch noted: ‘Obviously, their priority was not the rescue, but to drag people back to Libya. They did not even deploy their rescue boat, which is meant to be an asset in case of man overboard. They left it stored on their aft-deck during the whole operation. Instead of throwing potatoes at our crew, the self-declared coast guards could have made themselves useful for once.’

The EU and US: standing in the way of solutions

The United Nations had, for some months, been attempting to encourage the international community to offer more assistance to refugees in Libya (its Support Mission in Libya has made some extremely significant mistakes, but has been actively responsible for very little, if any, of what has gone so extraordinarily wrong in the state, while the UN as an organisation has been publicly decrying the ransom and other extraordinary mistreatment of refugees in Libya since 2016).

But despite some engagement from Italy and France, the EU – through inaction and in some cases efforts to block any measure which seemed likely to require it to transport or help the transportation of refugees – effectively prevented the UN’s ‘preferred response’, which was the movement of people directly from Libya to the EU and other parts of the world.

Its second suggestion – effectively an international Sahel police force, which would have been charged with stopping refugees who were trying to cross the Sahara, before offering them the choice to return to their home countries, or enter the official international asylum process under UNHCR jurisdiction – had some positive elements, not least that it would remove much of the risk of people being imprisoned, tortured, ransomed, killed or sold into slavery by Libyan warlords. It may also have reduced the number of deaths each year of people trying and failing to cross the Sahara.

It was also broadly welcomed by the EU, largely because it would prevent people entering Libya and leaving it by boat for the EU.

But it did have some significant negatives, even aside from sensible desires to promote and protect freedom of movement.

First, it would have required agreement from the world’s nations to pay for and staff an extremely expensive international police force. Second, the force would have faced an almost impossible task – policing thousands of miles of desert. Third, the force itself would be virtually ‘un-policeable’ – that is, ‘who watches the watchmen?’, always a significant and important concern, becomes significantly more difficult with a remote desert force whose members are likely to expect and experience significant protection from prosecution from their own governments.

In the end, however, the plan was dropped for none of these reasons, but because of the US. As noted elsewhere on this site, the US has, since the refusal by the UN to back the invasion of Iraq in 2003, been working to undermine the UN, a policy which has become significantly more open and aggressive under Donald Trump.

And Trump’s own policy on refugees, far from welcoming international cooperation and attempting – in however flawed a way – to address issues facing people at or close to their source, has been focussed on the closing of US borders. This was vital because without US backing, the ‘force’ would not have gained international support, and neither would it have received the staff or finance it required.

Faced with opposition to ‘preference one’ from the EU, and to ‘preference two’ from the US, the UN in the end proposed a third ‘solution’: to move refugees from Libyan ‘detention centres’ to Niger. A state which does not produce enough food to feed its own population.

Under its proposal, agreed to by the EU, some 3,800 people would be evacuated from Libya, 15,000 people offered protection or voluntary return from the state, and 14,000 people would be resettled in the EU. Quite how the 15,000 people are to be ‘protected’ or why they should want to return to states they fled to escape repression, is unclear.

In any case, the first 25 people were evacuated to Niger on 11 November. Up to and including 16 March, a total of 1,020 people have made the same journey. Of that number, just 55 people have been relocated to EU states.

Libya: slavery, torture and murder

And then, three days later, and seven months after IOM had warned the world that it was happening, US news agency CNN on 14 November released video footage of sub-Saharan Africans being sold as slaves in Libya.

In its footage, those sold were priced at $400, though agencies including MSF, Amnesty and others have testimony from refugees that they had been sold for far less money.

According to those testimonies, the ‘standard’ situation would usually play out as follows: a black African man or woman would arrive in Libya from the South, and would either be taken straight to one of the northern cities, or would make their way across country until they reached one, or were picked up by a uniformed man, and ‘accompanied’ to a ‘detention centre’


In many instances, they were informed that they were to be taken there for their own safety (this, along with allegations that refugees often had to pay ransoms to be allowed out of the centres was also stated by Libyan ‘politicians’), but when they arrived, the reality was significantly worse even than they had imagined.

Testimonies from refugees detail rooms in which bodies are piled on top of one another, and into which new arrivals would be thrown as part of a regime of torture; other rooms in which more direct physical torture took place, the systematic rape of women, and the demands for ransom to escape the centres.

But many refugees, having lost family members, or coming from families without money, are unable to meet the ransom demands. Those who are not killed while being ‘tested’ (tortured) to see if their claims to have no money are true, are sold into slavery.

In general, the periods in slavery last only a few months. Some people die, but most are simply worked until – partly also because they are underfed – they are too exhausted to work any more. At that point, if they are lucky, they are ‘allowed’ to get onto a boat and take their chances against the Libyan ‘coastguard’ (paid by the EU to prevent them leaving Libya) and the sea.

Once again, none of this information was particularly new. Almost all of it had been shared with the EU by humanitarian actors, and the rest was certainly publicly available information.

On the same day, but not in response to the CNN broadcast, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, described the EU’s policy on refugees in Libya as ‘inhuman’. In the two months and 14 days since the beginning of September, the number of refugees in Libya’s detention centres rocketed from 7,000 to 20,000.

The African Union, the following day, denounced the slave trading as ‘despicable’, and ‘a trade from another era’, but the National Commission for Human Rights in Libya (NCHRL), while promising to investigate and attempt to ensure that the selling of human beings as possessions ends immediately, also claimed – without justification – that the CNN report was ‘an exaggeration’.

As we noted at the time, this would be bad enough for a government, motivated by self-interest, but was an astonishing and disconcerting statement from a supposedly humanitarian organisation.

France was the first individual state to pledge (although not to take) any action, on 24 November. Its President Emmanuel Macron, and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, threatened sanctions against Libya, although it remains unclear exactly who these sanctions would be levelled against, as those responsible are warlords, rather than representatives of the Libyan government(s), and in any case, as the Libyan governments are all effectively powerless, it is difficult to imagine what effect, if any, sanctions against one or all of them could have.

Once again, we advised that if there were genuine international will to end the trade (and we should note that at least France was discussing the matter publicly, which other states, having decried the practice, were and are not), the most practical solutions would be to immediately move all refugees from Libya, and/or ‘UN peace-keeping force in Libya, and the protection of refugees and Libyan civilians – including urgent aid and safe shelter in the EU for the former (for at least as long as their asylum applications are being processed) and aid and security for the latter.’

Sadly, we noted, sanctions are cheaper.

November’s end – the EU's creation and ignorance of the world's deadliest border

November had not been a good month for the EU and the results of its ultra-defensive border policies.

While the major problems had been caused by the UK, Denmark, Poland, and Hungary (and at times also Spain) refusing to back a common EU policy and approach, which in turn led individual states to behave as if they had forgotten they were members of the richest political bloc in human history, throwing up fences at their borders as if the Renaissance and Enlightenment had never happened, there were other culprits.

Germany and Sweden, for example, who had worked extraordinarily hard to accommodate refugees, were far too swift, in the face of objection by the four (and sometimes five) named states, to drop everything, and draft the EU/Turkey Deal, erecting prison camps and changing the Turkish coastguard into a sea militia to prevent people reaching the EU from the East.

And nor were governments in most other states helping. They voted in favour of the Deal despite its manifest moral and practical failings, and in Italy, when the EU also refused to offer it any help while more than 450,000 refugees arrived by sea in three years, the government refused to argue against the active lies and negativity towards human beings shown by the state’s populists and far-Right.

There was an opportunity for politicians and ngos to unite, in Italy and elsewhere, to make the point that assisting people to escape death is not just the right thing to do in a moral sense (though it is) but that it can also be of immense benefit to societies in terms of economics and advancement. Instead many on both sides (and almost all politicians) stepped aside and allowed the floor to be taken by the far-Right: racists and nationalists now set, and controlled the debate, and EU and individual government policy strove to ‘meet them halfway’ even though that halfway point was the unnecessary death of some innocent people, rather than the deliberate ethnic cleansing of Europe as a whole.

And so what should have been the final nail in the coffin for Europe’s policy of stopping refugees from crossing its borders, was instead allowed to pass with, at most, a wistful sigh in some Left-leaning newspapers.

The world's deadliest border

On 26 November, IOM and the European University Institute issued a report, ‘Four Decades of Cross-Mediterranean Undocumented Migration to Europe’ recording that 33,761 refugees had (to June 2017) died attempting to cross the Mediterranean since 2000, making Europe’s the world’s deadliest border.

It is entirely inescapable that the reason for this is fundamentally that the EU has done almost everything within its power to prevent people from reaching its borders. It could have attempted almost any other approach, such as offering transportation and processing people’s asylum requests in Europe.

Even doing nothing would have caused fewer deaths. Instead, it has dedicated time and money to forcing sea rescue services in Libya and Turkey to using all means possible to stop people, and has taken extraordinary measures to prevent humanitarians from rescuing innocent men, women and children.

At the same time, the far-Right was allowed to operate on the Mediterranean, and in most EU states, unchallenged and unopposed by most politicians across the continent.

As noted, despite the seriousness of the report, and the thousands of deaths on its hands, the EU and its member states did not change direction. Instead, on 13 December, European Council President Donald Tusk proposed a budget line for the EU from 2021 aimed at ‘stemming illegal immigration’. That is, to commit to paying governments to keep refugees in states where we know they are beaten, raped, tortured and killed.

While European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos described his plan as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘anti-European’, saying: ‘(Tusk’s proposal) denies, it ignores, all the work that we have done during the past three years. It undermines one of the main pillars of the European project, the principal of solidarity. Solidarity cannot be cherry-picked,’ the sad fact is that in fact, Tusk’s plan, rather than Avramopoulos’ criticism of it, is far more in keeping with the EU’s standard policies on refugees to date.

And, once again, those policies, and the refusal to stand up to the far-Right, has created a situation in which the far-Right owns the debate, chooses when it is held, and the terms on which it takes place. These are circumstances which are simultaneously insanely damaging for any moderate approach and anyone who does not go as far as the far-Right demands, and of course spell actual death for innocent men, women and children.

Evidence of rape

Nor have the damning updates ceased. On 15 March, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation told delegates at a European Policy Centre event that women arriving in Niger’s capital, Niamey, were asking first not for a ‘glass of water’, but for an HIV test, as most of them had been impregnated, by rape, during their time in Libya.

He also noted that a baby born this week was the first of many expected to be born to the women who have arrived in Niger from Libya.

The responsibility for rape is of course that of the rapist. But the responsibility for refusing to ensure the safety of refugees desperately attempting to reach the EU, and instead leaving them in a state where the EU knows that they face rape, torture, and murder or being sold into slavery, lies with the EU and the EU alone.

The collapse of reason, Italy, Germany, Netherlands and France: the result of bowing to the racist Right, and giving it the floor

Nor has the policy even worked politically. In Germany, the fascist AfD won 13 per cent of the vote in September 2017’s general election – the first time a fascist party has won seats in the national parliament since the end of the Nazi Party.

In France, the Presidential election of April and May last year was won by a long distance by Emmanuel Macron, but his only opponent who also made the second-round run-off was the fascist Marine Le Pen. The Netherlands general election of March 2017 saw Geert Wilders’ far-Right populist party the PVV take 13 per cent of the vote, the second-highest share.

And in Italy, on 4 March this year, the fascist, anti-immigration, Northern League took 37 per cent of the vote. The populist, anti-immigration Five Star party took almost 33 per cent. The ‘Democratic’ so-called ‘Centre-Left’ coalition finished a distant third with just 23 per cent of the vote.

This in a country where in 2014, 170,100 refugees entered by sea, and the percentage of Italians polled who believed immigration to be ‘a major concern’ was just three per cent. The number of refugees to enter Italy fell in 2015, to 153,842, and while the total recorded in 2016 was the highest on record, at 181,436, that was still just an increase of 11,336 on the 2014 number.

In 2017, the number of refugees who arrived in Italy dropped to 119,369. And yet, when Italy went to the polls on 4 March, the number of people who regarded immigration as a ‘major concern’ was ten times higher than in 2014: more than a third of all Italians believed it was.

When Italy issued its ‘code of conduct’ for NGOs, it may have believed it was reducing the power of the far-Right, by ‘taking action.

But Pierluigi Musarò, a professor and expert on borders and migration with the University of Bologna, notes that it in fact ‘legitimised’ suspicion of humanitarians. He said: ‘For five months all we saw were images of collusion and you cannot compare the power over the media that political parties and the government have with the power of the NGOs.’

We can of course blame the media for the decimation of those in Italy who do not wish to prevent refugees reaching safety – Italian and other European newspapers, TV and websites have certainly been quick to share and promote stories of alleged criminality, promoting as fact things which are nothing of the sort.

But in the end, the media is likely to share not just what it wants to, but also what it has.

And what the last four years have proven is that you gain nothing by giving ‘a little’ ground to the far-Right. In fact, you grant it legitimacy, by appearing to admit that it was, after all, correct.

You do not remove that legitimacy by refusing to talk about an issue. Instead, you give the far-Right a free run at a public which does not have time to analyse and fact-check every story that is thrown at it.

In successive elections across Europe, the failure – driven in some cases by cowardice – of European politicians to argue for people who need assistance, and people whose presence can benefit us all, has been proven, if it were ever a tactic, to be a tactic of failure.

The future for the Netherlands is one in which the fascist Geert Wilders can stand as the leader of the nation’s second most popular party – he can appear as a ‘statesman’ even though his career has been built on lies, and will continue to be fuelled by scaremongering, inaccuracy and outright untruths.

In Germany, AfD is now – because of the coalition between the state’s two largest parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – the official opposition. It has already sent representatives to Syria to attempt to push a policy of immediately forcing Syrians in Germany not only back into a war-torn state, but one run by a man who has consistently used the state’s military might against them.

And Italy is set to be run by a coalition led by a fascist party, and a populist party whose major common policy with its partner is an opposition to anyone else entering Italy.

Bowing to the racist Right, and refusing to call it out on its errors, misleading ‘data’ and its messages of hate, has failed. It has granted the far-Right power and influence, it has caused the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children, and it is extremely likely to cause far more.

The ‘policy’ has already destroyed some of the politicians and political groups which have followed it – for a short while, at least.

But it is not the responsibility of politicians alone.

We, as humanitarians, have a responsibility not to allow our political allegiances to prevent us from treating all people in need of assistance, as equally deserving, and delivering what they need.

But we also have a responsibility, as people in the field, formulating and carrying out the response to dire human emergencies, to speak out on behalf of the men, women and children we serve, who are actually dying as a result of European policies.

And our failure to do so threatens us, as it is in the waters around Italy, and our ability to ever deliver the assistance that people may literally die without. We cannot undo the deaths caused by the policies and mistakes of the last four years, but we cannot pretend that silence will deliver a better alternative to them. It will deliver the same, or worse.

Italy’s second seizure - Open Arms

This is why the story of Open Arms, the vessel owned by Spanish ngo Proactiva Open Arms , which was seized at Pozzallo, Sicily on 18 March on the orders of a prosecutor in Catania, also on the island, requires us to talk about Libya, about Italy, about the EU’s desperate attempts to stop innocent people reaching its shores, including its creation of sea militias out of sea-rescue services, and about refugees.

Open Arms was seized after a disagreement with the Libyan ‘coastguard’ in international waters – where it is allowed, under the ‘code of conduct’, to operate – 73 miles off the Libyan coast. It had rescued 218 refugees, including a heavily-pregnant woman, from the sea, when the ‘coastguard’ arrived and demanded the crew hand over the rescued people to them.

‘If you do not give us the immigrants, we will kill you,’ the captain of the ‘coastguard’ vessel warned.

Italy and Malta both refused to allow it to dock, but after three days, carrying 218 frightened men, women and children, it was given permission to enter Pozzallo, where it has been held ever since.

The Catania authorities claim Proactiva Open Arms is suspected of: ‘illegal immigration and criminal association’ as well as ‘seeking to bring migrants to Italy’ and ‘violating the law and international agreements by not handing over the migrants to Libyan authorities.’

What we do now

This is not simply a story about Open Arms – unless in the figurative sense.

It is a reminder to us all that you cannot win an argument you do not take part in.

And failing to win this argument means thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – more people will be tortured, raped, sold as slaves, and die.

It is time we stood up and had the argument, as well as providing those who should also speak out, with the information they need.

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