The scene outside a migrant detention center in the Tripoli suburb of Tajoura on July 3, 2019, after an air strike that left dozens killed the previous night. Photo: Mahmud Turkia / AFP

Calls are growing for an end to an EU-backed policy of trapping migrants in Libya, after 53 people were killed and more than 130 wounded in an air strike on their detention center.

It was the second time the Tajoura facility, east of the capital Tripoli, had been hit by an air strike, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF). In the aftermath of Wednesday’s strike, some 250 migrants, many of them women and children, remained at the detention center, according to the International Organization for Migration.

While the strike itself has been blamed on forces loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar – backed by France, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in his bid to take Tripoli – the fact that so many people were left trapped and exposed in the midst of a civil war has been blamed squarely on the Europe Union.

The EU, namely Italy and France, funds the Libyan Coast Guard, which is charged with turning back refugees and migrants who attempt to make crossings to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Human Rights Watch in March called on France to suspend a delivery of six ships to the force and instead allow rescue operations and disembarkation at safe ports.

“Over the course of the conflict, which has now been raging for three months of fighting in the city of Tripoli, we have seen thousands of people who have been intercepted at sea and returned to detention centers even whilst there is conflicts raging around the city,” Sam Turner, the head of MSF’s Libya operations, told PRI.

Turner said that when he visited the Tajoura detention center after the previous air strike in May, he saw a piece of shrapnel that went through the roof of the women’s section and landed a meter away from where a baby had been sleeping.

He blames EU politicians for “complicity.”

“They believe that it acts to dissuade other refugees and migrants from attempting to make the crossing,” he said.

Such reasoning is similar to that of US President Donald Trump, who tweeted last week amid outcry over family separations and overcrowding, harassment and unsanitary practices in detention facilities, that if migrants do not wish to experience such conditions, they should not attempt to enter the United States.

“All problems solved!” the US leader said.

EU digs in

In the wake of the migrant massacre, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Human Rights Council called for “an immediate end to detention of migrants and refugees” in Libya.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet echoed that call.

“I have repeatedly called for the closure of all migrant detention centers in Libya, where UN human-rights staff have documented severe overcrowding, torture, ill-treatment, forced labor, rape, and acute malnutrition, among other serious human-rights violations.

“I also repeat my call for the release of detained migrants and refugees as a matter of urgency, and for their access to humanitarian protection, collective shelters or other safe places, well away from areas that are likely to be affected by the hostilities,” she said.

The head of the UN refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, said there were three key lessons to take from the deaths of the migrants.

“They must NOT be detained; civilians must NOT be a target; Libya is NOT a safe place of return,” he tweeted.

The European Union denounced the attack on the Tajoura center, but appeared to reject calls to end migrant returns to Libya.

Brussels emphasized that more than 45,000 migrants have been allowed to return to their countries of origin while others have been granted emergency evacuations to a center in Niger, with the prospect of further resettlement.

Fueling the war

Koert Debeuf, who tracks European policies toward Libya at the online newspaper EU Observer, says the bloc is to blame not only for sending migrants back to their deaths, but also for fueling the war.

While Brussels, like most of the international community, stresses its support for the UN-backed government in Tripoli, in practice European capitals are divided.

“They always say they support the UN. But at same time Italy and France are fighting for power – not only power but oil and gas. France is supporting militarily and politically Haftar, while Italy is supporting [Prime Minister] Sarraj. It’s a complete mess,” Debeuf said.

Haftar and his Libyan National Army – an umbrella of militias – in April launched a bid to capture Tripoli, where Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj heads the interim Government of National Accord. Thousands of people have been displaced and hundreds killed, with the attack on the Tajoura migrant center accounting for the biggest single loss of civilian life.

“The big problem with stopping these people and sending them back to Libya is it’s not a safe place. There’s a war going on, chaos, anarchy, and a massive problem of human trafficking. What the EU is doing is sending people back to hell,” he said.

Debeuf says Europe must end its end its fight for power in Libya and craft a sustainable migration policy.

“I do understand that after 2015, and a million and half people entering Europe […] it did complicate politics. But right now they’re just creating a big wall instead of having a migration policy – there’s no policy,” he told Asia Times.

Just last week, the chaos reached European shores when an activist German ship captain defied an Italian naval blockade and entered the port of Lampedusa with 42 migrants aboard. She had rescued them off the coast of Libya, after which they were stranded at sea without a port of entry.

“For two weeks, we had been informing the authorities that the situation of the people on board was becoming more and more critical and that the medical conditions of migrants were getting worse, day after day,” the captain, Carola Rackete, told The Guardian newspaper. “But it was like talking to a brick wall.”

The action incensed Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, who has vowed to prevent activist rescue ships from docking in Italy, which is only now emerging from its third recession in a decade.

Had those migrants been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, the EU would not have had to deal with the controversy of their asylum claims – which is the point.

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