South Africa must not repeat Libya’s mistakes with refugees

The practice of detaining of migrants and refugees in Libya is rotten to the core. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

The practice of detaining of migrants and refugees in Libya is rotten to the core. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

What migrants and refugees are living through in Libya should shock the collective conscience of Europe’s citizens and elected leaders - and give South Africa, also a major destination for refugees, something to think about.

Blinded by the single-minded goal of keeping people outside of Europe, European funding is helping to stop boats from departing Libyan waters, but this policy is also feeding a criminal system of abuse. For South Africa, and any other migration destination country, this is a prime example of what to avoid at all costs when implementing frameworks to control borders and manage migration.

For millennia, migration has been a normal part of our shared human condition which is why Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stands in solidarity with migrants and refugees through the medical care and support we provide to people in distress – be it on boats in the Mediterranean Sea or on land in Europe or Africa.

The practice of detaining of migrants and refugees in Libya is rotten to the core.  It must be named for what it is: a thriving enterprise of kidnapping, torture and extortion. And European governments have chosen to contain people in this situation. People cannot be sent back to Libya, nor should they be contained there.

MSF has assisted people in Libyan detention centres in Tripoli for over a year, and we have witnessed first-hand the systems of arbitrary detention, extortion, physical abuse and deprivation of basic services that men, women and children suffer in these centres.

I visited a number of official detention centres last week and we know that these official detention centres are just the tip of the iceberg.

People are simply treated as a commodity for exploitation. They are packed into dark, filthy rooms with no ventilation, living on top of one another. Men told us how groups of them are forced to run naked in the courtyard until they collapse from exhaustion. Women are raped and then made to call their families back home asking for money to be freed. All the people I met had tears in their eyes, asking again and again to get out. The despair is overwhelming.

The reduced numbers of people leaving Libyan shores has been lauded by some in Europe as a success in preventing loss of life at sea, and smashing smugglers’ networks.

But with the knowledge of what is happening in Libya, lauding this as a success demonstrates, at best, pure hypocrisy; and at worst, a cynical complicity in the business of reducing human beings to merchandise in human traffickers’ hands. 

The people trapped in these well-documented, nightmarish conditions in Libya need a way out. They need access to protection, asylum and increased voluntary repatriation procedures. They need an escape to safety via safe and legal passage, but only a tiny fraction of people have been able to access this.

This horrific violence against them must stop; there needs to be a basic respect for their human rights including access to sufficient food, water and medical care.

Instead of confronting the vicious cycle that their own policies are creating, European politicians have hidden behind unfounded accusations towards NGOs and individuals who attempt to help people in dire straits.  During our search and rescue operations at sea, MSF has been shot at by the European-funded Libyan coast guard and repeatedly accused of collusion with traffickers. But who is colluding with criminals here? Those seeking to rescue people, or those enabling people to be treated like commodities, to be packed and sold?

Libya is just the most recent and extreme example of European migration policies going back several years, where a primary objective is to push people out of sight. The EU-Turkey deal which in 2016 effectively outsourced asylum, and what we have seen in Greece, in France, in the Balkans and beyond, are a growing trend of border closures and pushbacks.

What this does is close options for people who seek safe and legal ways of reaching Europe and pushes them further and further into the smugglers’ networks, which European leaders insist they want to dismantle.

Safe and legal avenues for people to cross borders are the only way to eliminate the perverse incentives that allow for smugglers and traffickers to thrive whilst at the same time fulfilling border control objectives.

South Africa’s White Paper on International Migration was published in July this year, stating government policy, and in the coming months, amendments of the Refugee and Migration Acts will follow. This process creates momentum for lawmakers to look at best practices worldwide. However, they should remain vigilant, and take heed of Europe’s cynical actions and the impact of the regressive policies that erode humanity. African leaders in the Migration Dialogue for Southern Africa have an opportunity to manage migration differently, to avoid human suffering caused by containment strategies and detentions that imperil the health and lives of migrants and refugees.

Especially in Africa, we cannot say that we did not know that this was happening in Libya. The predation on misery and the horrific suffering of those trapped must end now. In their efforts to stem the flow, is allowing people to be pushed into rape, torture and slavery via criminal pay-offs a price European governments are willing to pay?

South Africa can work hard to be the positive example to lead the way for proper and humane migration management by improving its immigration policies – instead of adding to the unnecessary suffering the European approach causes desperate people.

Dr Joanne Liu is Doctors Without Borders’ International President

Joanne Liu

Joanne Liu

Joanne Liu, M.D., C.M. is a Canadian pediatric doctor, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Montreal, Professor of Practice of Medicine at McGill University, and the current International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders). She was elected President during MSF's International General Assembly in June 2013. Read more from Joanne Liu

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