Europe hopes that the fates of African migrants will soon be decided at facilities in Chad or Niger. It is a wonderful idea, but also a misleading illusion. In truth, Europe’s primary focus is on shutting down the Mediterranean route.
Jonathan Obote’s voice drops to a whisper when he describes what it’s like to live in a prison in Garabulli, Libya. He lives in a cell with 60 others, penned in like an animal, he says in a moment when the guards aren’t paying attention. He sleeps on the ground, he says, is beaten by the guards and often goes hungry.
Not long ago, Obote, a thin 23-year-old Nigerian with a young face but tired eyes, was working with his brother on a construction site in Tripoli hoping to earn enough money to continue his journey to Europe. But then, half a year ago, men wearing masks dragged him from his apartment and took him to Garabulli, near Tripoli, a launching point for refugee boats bound for Italy.
Now Obote is sitting in the prison courtyard, where he is allowed to stretch his legs for one hour a day. Then he returns to his cell, where it reeks of feces and urine – and where the inmates are so desperate that there are frequent fights.
Obote’s account is consistent with information collected by human rights activists and diplomats. The aid organization Oxfam has criticized Libya for allegedly locking migrants away in prisons or camps, where they are tortured and raped. In January, the German Foreign Ministry likened the conditions in the Libyan detention centers to those in Nazi concentration camps. An internal European Union report on a camp in Tripoli reads like a description of a modern-day slave trade. It claims that the inmates, mostly Africans, are sometimes “sold back and forth between the camps.”
Nevertheless, the EU is now doing all it can to prevent the migrants from putting out to sea from Libya, thereby ensuring that they end up in these Libyan prisons. Two years after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous words, “We can do it,” Europe is sealing itself off again. If European leaders have their way, Africa could soon look like the Balkans: a continent filled with fences and barriers designed to prevent migrants from continuing their journeys to the north.
At their refugee summit in Paris last Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Merkel reintroduced an old concept, whereby requests for protection would be reviewed in African countries like Niger and Chad. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair failed with a similar proposal in 2003, as did former German Interior Minister Otto Schily.
At first glance, though, the concept seems to make sense. If refugees and migrants could submit asylum requests in Africa, they would no longer be forced to risk their lives in the attempt to reach Europe. They would no longer board overcrowded boats operated by traffickers, nor would they end up in Libyan camps.
But the plan is virtually impossible to implement. Who would build and operate the reception and selection centers outside the EU? Poor countries like Niger and Chad lack the resources, as does the overloaded United Nations Refugee Agency. This means that European officials would have to be sent to Africa.
But Europe isn’t even capable of quickly processing asylum requests in Greece and Italy. As part of their refugee agreement with Turkey, EU member states pledged to review asylum requests within days. Those whose requests were denied were to be immediately returned to Turkey, while all others would be distributed around Europe. But many Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis have been stuck on Greek islands for the last year and a half, due to delays in the processing of their requests.