By Thom Tyerman and Kashef
From Middle East Solidarity magazine, issue 12. Order a print copy or download as a pdf here
Death is a daily occurrence at Europe’s borders. Conservative estimates in 2017 placed the number of deaths since 2000 at 33,761.
The Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s deadliest borders and divides some of the richest and most secure regions on the planet from the poorest and most insecure. This is not an accident but by design. Europe’s restrictive visa system shuts out most of the world’s poorest people and those in need of asylum by denying them access to legal routes of free movement.
Instead, those escaping war, the terror of authoritarian regimes, displacement, famine, poverty and exploitation, are forced to take long and dangerous journeys to find safety and a liveable life.
The details of people’s journeys are as complex and multiple as their reasons for embarking on them, many spending years living in transit. Moving North from West Africa through Niger to Algeria and Morocco, or from the Eastern Horn of Africa up through Sudan to Libya or Egypt, most have risked their lives crossing the Sahara desert before reaching the shores of North Africa and making the decision to get onto an overcrowded and poorly repaired boat. But before they even reach the Mediterranean they will have already encountered multiple European borders.
Over the last decade, European border controls have been increasingly externalised and outsourced to countries in the MENA and Sahel regions. Under the auspices of the Rabat and Khartoum Processes, summits in Valletta 2015, Malta 2017, and Sharm El-Sheikh 2019 saw the EU provide billions of Euros in exchange for neighbouring states to implement restrictive border control policies aimed at disrupting, detaining, and deporting migrants before they even reach Europe’s borders.
Close collaboration has been further developed through bilateral agreements, such as the Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding 2017 which designated assigned primary responsibility to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard as the primary responsible agent for border control and search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean.
Given the conflicts and human rights abuses documented in many of these partner countries, a huge amount of violence is involved in implementing the EU’s borders. The Libyan detention centres offer a stark picture of this violence, where people are incarcerated by Libyan militias in inhumane conditions and subject to routine abuse, torture, and extortion.
In the Mediterranean itself, European states have moved from a policy of search and rescue, to abandonment, to what can be seen as the institutionalisation of refoulement (the forcible return of asylum seekers to a country where they risk persecution) which is a violation of international human rights law.
Since the EU-Turkey deal in 2016 established automatic deportations for ‘irregular’ migrants and those with rejected asylum claims, we are now also seeing EU states coordinate with Libyan and Moroccan authorities to have migrant boats ‘pulled-back’ to North Africa and their passengers arrested.
At the same time, solidarity has been increasingly criminalised, with civilian NGO rescue ships denied entry to European ports, or else impounded and their crew charged under anti-smuggling laws.
In this way, the EU actively perpetuates the physical and structural harms migrants face even as it turns its back on them.
Set up 5 years ago, Watch the Med Alarm Phone is a transborder network of activists from different countries in Europe and beyond that is committed to the freedom of movement for all. It operates a 24 hour emergency distress hotline for people who are crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.
The Alarm Phone helps to coordinate their rescue by alerting the European coastguards and then monitoring the situation until we can confirm they are rescued. When confronted with EU state inaction or collusion with push-backs, we raise the alarm through social media to apply pressure and demand a rescue is carried out.
We also raise the alarm in a more general sense through regular reports documenting the daily violence going on at Europe’s borders and their structural injustices.
Alarm Phone develops its vision and argument for a world without borders out of direct action in the Mediterranean. We stand in solidarity with all those who struggle to enact their freedom of movement despite the borders that seek to make this freedom impossible.
Struggles for freedom of movement are intimately bound up with struggles for freedom against state tyranny and economic inequality that exist everywhere but have been particularly prominent in the uprisings of the last decade in the MENA region.
Many people who called the Alarm Phone in distress over the years have got on that boat to escape the civil war in Syria that began with a revolution against the brutal Assad government, or the racist persecution of the Sudanese regime against the populations of Darfur and Nuba Mountains, or the degrading horror of the Libyan camps.
At the same time, the struggle for freedom of movement, for ‘no borders’, is a struggle against a political and economic system that maintains the wealth and power of Europe in part through stabilising and upholding authoritarian states in the Middle East and Africa.
Therefore, struggles for national democracy and rights, regional peace and prosperity, and global free movement are all part of the same project of building another world.
Alarm Phone has members across the Mediterranean, West Africa and Europe. As part of the project, acts of solidarity with diaspora communities working to claim and defend civil and political rights are vital. In order to facilitate this Alarm Phone organises and participates in a variety of networks.
An example is We’ll Come United, a network Alarm Phone members helped to establish and participate in, which assists in networking exiles, diaspora communities and European activists, particularly in Germany, with refugee and migrant communities in various countries that are involved in political and societal struggles to improve refugee and migration policies.
We show unconditional support for the Sudanese revolution and Sudanese community activists in Europe, and stand in solidarity with our friends in the Kurdish and Afghan communities.
Alarm Phone strongly criticises European-Egyptian cooperation in the fields of migration and security, as well as the use of development discourses in order to open up the state for international capital.
However, Alarm Phone’s interests extend beyond solidarity to influencing public policy. The organisation facilitates information exchange, sharing the experiences of exiled activists in order to communicate successes to other activist groups.
With other networks, Alarm Phone recently organised the transborder summercamp (TSC) in France, which was attended by approximately 556 activists from across the Mediterranean. Initiatives such as this have real connective and productive impacts on refugee and migrant solidarity actions, helping to develop in the exchange of ideas and experiences, and inspiring those taking part.
The TSC brought activists together from across the MENA, Sahel, Central and Western Africa, and Europe to share and learn from each other’s struggles. Discussions made links between struggles against corporate resource extraction in central Africa, mass displacement, authoritarian regimes in North Africa, and the EU’s increasing security-border infrastructure. These conversations reminded us that we need to develop common strategies which link our different struggles across and against borders. Fighting deportations in Germany is also fighting the terror of the Egyptian regime. Each search and rescue boat that docks in Italy is a challenge to rising European fascism and its partners, and the Libyan militias that profiteer from death and torture. These links were highlighted for us during the camp when we received news of the occupation in Paris, organised by the gilets noirs, a movement of undocumented migrants. Their message: “We are not simply fighting for documentation, but against a system that makes us undocumented immigrants”. The Alarm Phone is one part of this wider project of building networks of solidarity and resistance.
This article expresses the individual views of the authors and not the official position of Watch the Med Alarm Phone.
The Libyan ‘coastguards’ who smuggle people
by Julie Henri
Following years of civil war since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, Libya is controlled by thousands of rival militias. At the same time, the European Union’s policies have turned from rescue to outsourced border control.
Abd Al-Rahman Milad (aka Bija) is the leader of a militia in control of part of the Libyan coastline and was paid by European governments to patrol the Mediterranean in search of “illegal migrants”.
A 2017 Libya Experts Panel report identified Bija as a key smuggling figure in the region. Isobal Yeung, a Vice News reporter, interviewed Bija back in October 2017, who is well aware of his position of power in this context: “They are accusing me of smuggling. The government – with all of our capacities – just can’t … If I were a smuggler, no one would be able to stop me”.
The documentary also shows that Bija knows who the other smugglers are, and ensures he brings the migrants trafficked by other smugglers back to the Libyan coast to be able to smuggle them himself later.
Originally, the European Union’s missions were aimed to save lives and disassemble human trafficking networks in the North African region. However, since 2016, following disputes among European member states around receiving incoming migrants, the Italian government refocused its priority on reducing the number of crossings through greater collaboration with the Libyan Coast Guard by providing them with “training, patrol boats and other equipment, and financial and other support”.
In January 2017 alone, the European Union announced the immediate allocation of €1 million to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy as well as a grant of €2.2 million under the Regional Development and Protection Programme in North Africa and establishing a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. The overall programmes of the European Union’s support to migration management in Libya are worth over €20 million.
Yet, this same Libyan Coast Guard which received millions of euros in EU funding, are in fact human traffickers themselves. Amnesty International’s Libya’s “Dark Web of Collusion” 2017 report revealed that seven of the 72 migrants interviewed by Amnesty International confirmed that they had been stopped by the Libyan Coast Guard while at sea and were allowed through after their smuggler was identified as someone who had paid for safe passage of his boats.
In 2018 following campaigns by human rights organisations and media investigations, Bija was sanctioned by the UN for human trafficking. Other militias continue to cash in on the EU’s migration policies, however, by running camps where migrants “rescued” by the Libyan Coast Guard are detained. This is a vicious circle that enriches smugglers, maintains human trafficking networks in Libya and puts displaced people’s lives at risk.