The fundamental cause of the current flow migrants risking their lives on the way to Europe is the outrageous division of the globe into oppressor and oppressed countries where a handful of monopoly capitalist powers acquire unimaginable wealth through the exploitation of the vast majority of the world’s people.
Two large rubber boats set out for Italy from Libya on 1 September 2018. Like countless such craft before them, they were carrying hundreds of people from central, east and north Africa, and as has happened so often, the engine failed on one and the other began to deflate.
No one came to their rescue.
European aircraft noted their location – between Italy and Malta – and twice threw down life rafts. The passengers couldn’t get to them. They were already struggling in the water, clinging to floating boat parts. Most couldn’t swim and few had life jackets.
The Italian government refused to send a rescue ship. It argued that because of an agreement signed between Italy and one of the several power centres competing for control in Libya, an agreement contrary to Italian, European and international law, only the so-called Libyan Coastguard now has the authority to conduct rescue operations in these waters.
In fact, even if an Italian Coastguard vessel had wanted to help them, it could not. Despite the protests of Italian Coastguard members and military officers, in late August Italy’s fascist strongman Matteo Salvini forbade a Coastguard ship (Il Diciotti), with almost 200 people rescued at sea aboard, to let most of its passengers come ashore, even at a city that offered them shelter. Commercial ships have been warned that the same will happen to them.
Not a single non-governmental organisation (NGO) rescue ship is able to operate in the Mediterranean right now. Some have been tied up by legal manoeuvres. Others have been driven off the seas by Italian threats to arrest and jail their crews. Over the last few months, patrol boats provided to the Libyan Coastguard by Italy have fired warning shots to prevent NGOs from rescuing people, sent armed men to board them and demand that those rescued be turned over to their custody, and threatened to kill crew members the next time.
The situation in the central Mediterranean has changed from terrible to even more terrible. The number of people successfully crossing the sea has dropped by 80 percent. Since July, it seems, most people setting out have not made it. The percentage who die trying has quadrupled. Three-quarters of the rest have been taken back to Libya by the coastguard, not so much rescued as captured at gunpoint.
In July, when two women with a small child refused to follow the rest of those on their smugglers’ boat and board the coastguard ship that intercepted it, their boat was cut in half and they were left to die…. Libya does not allow other ships to come within sight – or gunshot range – of their operations. The next day, a small square of floating debris was found, with one of the women still alive and the other woman and her toddler dead beside her.
Italy offered to take in the survivor, but not the bodies. The volunteer sailors who found them, from the Proactiva Open Arms ship whose work was initiated by Spanish lifeguards and private sea rescue professionals, transported the woman to a safe location in Spain, they said, so that she could not be prevented from testifying in one of several lawsuits lodged against the Italian government.
In the incident of the two rubber boats in September, by the time a Libyan Coastguard vessel showed up, many, at least a hundred, had died. Almost all of the survivors, even those suffering from severe chemical burns from spilled fuel, were taken to detention camps to be held indefinitely.
The number of prisoners in these centres – warehouses and other buildings surrounded by barbed wire – has doubled since July. Officially there are about 10,000 but Amnesty International estimated there were 20,000 as far back as late 2017. At that time the African Union said that hundreds of thousands were being held in many dozens of official and unofficial prisons across Libya. No one knows the true number, since the Libyan “government” backed by Italy and recognised by the European Union keeps no records of those it takes off ships and often subcontracts these concentration camps to militias and gangs, so that there is no independent access and no accounting.
The information about the September incident comes from a report by the NGO Médecins sans Frontières(Doctors without Borders), which was able to interview a few survivors. Judging by past experience, reported by Amnesty International based on interviews with 72 people who escaped on different boats and from different prisons, those whom the Italian government and its Libyan subordinates did not cause to drown will certainly face hunger and other extreme hardships. Many will be tortured, killed or sold as slaves. This treatment is not just sadistic. It is central to the political economy of what Europe’s leaders now call the “externalisation” of the “migrant crisis”.
Imperialist domination of Africa has blocked the future for countless millions of people. For decades migrants seeking a way out of suffocating situations have poured into Libya along well-established trails through the desert. During the years of the Libyan regime led by Muammar Gaddafi (1969-2011), they were the labour force behind the country’s oil economy. They were also useful to the regime politically, since it could turn on and off the “spigot” (of migrants leaving Libya for Europe) to facilitate its dealings with Italy and other European powers.
The West brought the Gaddafi regime to a violent end. Italy, the country’s former colonial master, had edged out France and the United Kingdom in the competition for sway over the regime. France was so eager to get back into the game that it began bombing Tripoli even before the end of a meeting of Western powers convened by the United Sates to discuss collective intervention. Since then, for reasons that include contention among the imperialist powers, especially Italy, France and the United States, as well as the emergence of armed Islamist groups, none of the other rival Libyan forces that have thrived in the power vacuum left by the intervention – Gaddafi regime commanders turned warlords, militias and gangs – has been able to gain the upper hand. They all depend on two sources of revenue – oil and immigrants – to finance their survival and bid for power. This situation could not have arisen, or at least continued so long, without the complex symbiosis between the contending Libyan forces and rival imperialists.
Although the number of new arrivals is dropping, there are still more than 600,000 people from other countries desperate to get out of Libya, according to the Amnesty International report. Now the only way out is through Italy. If the migrants are Black, their survival is at stake. They are captured, often on the streets, by gangs or soldiers, and imprisoned. Some are eventually released when it suits their captors. Fighting between rival forces sometimes brings opportunities for a prison break. Others are kept as camp labourers or sold as slaves, just like the chattel slavery that was one of the main sources of the accumulation of capital that allowed Europe and the United States to dominate the world. But there are ways to traffic people and accumulate wealth that are unique to the globalised and wired present: mobiles (cellphones) and easy international bank transfers. Captives are told to call family and friends for ransom money. Amnesty International, like other NGOs, documents cases where the captors call people on their captives’ phone contact lists, so that family and friends can hear and see the prisoners being tortured.
Money can buy release, but even more money is required to get away. One man described having to agree to be a driver’s temporary slave, on pain of being sold into permanent slavery, in return for a ride from the camp to the nearest city. If someone can scrape together enough cash, they can buy passage on boats run by smugglers who can’t get to the open sea without bribing Coastguard officials. If the smuggler doesn’t pay up, the passengers will pay the price. The Coastguard, whose leaders are often smugglers themselves, can stop a boat run by rivals from getting through, and grab its passengers. Or they may let a paying boat go by – and end up recovering their prisoners when it runs into trouble. The survivors are again imprisoned and the cycle begins again. The Amnesty International report calls this an economy made up of “authorities, militias, and armed groups, often working seamlessly with smugglers for financial gain.” Right now, migrants are more lucrative to traffic – and more readily available – than oil. No wonder rival groups are fighting over them.
This is not just a matter of Libyan criminals in and out of power. Although Italy, France and the European Union send funds for the Libyan groupings they back, and Italian naval officers and sailors are also active on the scene, migrants are a major source of the income that coheres and subsidises the local organisations that enforce Europe’s wishes. For Europe, the situation could not be better: they can pretend that nothing is their fault while the power of money itself – as many as five billion euros a year appropriated from families across Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere – creates an irresistible incentive to do their dirty work.
The policy of “externalising” Europe’s immigrant “problem” was decided at a recent conference of European Union country leaders where Italy was able to grab the initiative because no major power was able to put forward an alternative that suits any of their reactionary interests. Morally, none of them can give what most people would recognise as the only acceptable answer to the simple question posed in a rescue group poster: “I see a man drowning. Do I tell him we already have poor people in my country, or do I save his life?” Materially, this is because this “crisis” is a concentration of the condition the whole world is in. The underlying factor is the grotesque division of the globe into oppressor and oppressed countries and the convulsive workings of the imperialist system where a handful of monopoly capitalists headquartered in rival imperialist powers acquire once unimaginable wealth through the exploitation of the vast majority of the world’s people.
The immigration “crisis” can’t ultimately be solved without overthrowing this system as soon as possible. As the Revolutionary Communist Manifesto Group (Europe) wrote, “The truth is that it is impossible for a handful of wealthy countries to benefit from and enforce the backwardness and poverty in so much of the world without having to confront the consequences of that domination.” The imperialists have no effective way to confront those consequences except direct and indirect violence against people in and from the oppressed countries that many people in the “homeland” are taught to not only tolerate but welcome. Even as the number of migrants plummets, more and more benighted people in the rich countries are led to see immigrants, real or imaginary, as a threat to the backward moral order, reactionary social fabric and perceived privileges associated with this world order. These are among the mainsprings powering the lurch to the right and the vertiginous rise of fascism in Europe.
Angela Merkel’s previous Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, enthusiastically encouraged the Libyan Coastguard, even at a time when “Mother Merkel” was touted as immigrant-friendly, because it “deterred” people from risking their lives at sea. But the days are largely gone when anyone in power speaks in “humanitarian” terms. Merkel’s new government itself is split. Her current Interior Minister, Horst Seehoffer, whom she appointed to stabilise her ruling coalition in the face of the rise of the fascist Alternative for Deutschland party in parliament, is much closer to Italy’s Salvini than to Merkel. This has left the French government of Emmanuel Macron, itself pursuing anti-migrant legislation, repeatedly sending police to destroy the camps and belongings of migrants and criminalising aid to migrants, to be considered the main European counterweight to Italy, while making its own deals with reactionary power centres in Libya.
As a result of this political perfect storm, the convergence of many different factors, Libya has become a hungry whirlpool sucking countless Africans and others into the depths of suffering.
* Sam Albert writes for A Word to Win News Service (aworldtowinns.co.uk) where this article originally appeared.
Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders, 10 September 2018, “Libya: More than 100 dead in shipwreck.”
UNHCR, August 2018, “Desperate Journeys.”
Amnesty International, 30 August 2018, “Between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
Amnesty International, 11 December 2017, “Libya’s dark web of collusion.”
Gulf News, 14 September 2018, “Rescue group: Libya left migrants to die in the Mediterranean.”
CNN, 8 June 2018, “UN sanctions hit ‘millionaire migrant traffickers.’”
Revolutionary Communist Manifesto Group (Europe), 25 September 2015, “Migrant Crisis: Humanity Needs Communist Revolution!”, aworldtowinns.co.uk/blog/2015/09.