They leave Tripoli under the dark veil of the night. Huddled indiscriminately aboard patchworked boats, barely floating, inching northwards. They dream of Europe and its values, praying its security will fall upon them. A smile breaks through a collection of dry, cracked lips, revealing ice-white teeth and parched underused tongues. But the mirage is soon broken. These people are Libyans running from the latest conflict in their homeland. They are denied basic human rights back home and they will soon be denied them in the waters of Europe. Shunned by their mythical heroes who have no obligations of care or acceptance. Their dainty ships are blockaded by EU vessels, towed back to Libyan beaches. Defenceless passengers dumped, soon pouring onto the battlefields they once so desperately crawled from. There is a harsh absence of equity and decorum; unmistakably, a lack of heart.

Nobody chooses to be a refugee. There are no government pamphlets. Currently, Tripoli is experiencing the negligent effects of a catastrophic power vacuum. Since August 26th, artillery shells have consistently rained upon the city. Each one piercing a hole through labyrinth-like residential blocks. Leaving behind higgledy-piggledy conjoinings of rubble circling scorched puddles of nothingness. These scenes can be masked by smoke in the windless climate for days; often the sense of smell is the sole memory that remains indefinitely. The propellants are odourless, but the burning of a lifetime’s worth of possessions wreak.

Rival militants are clashing with the UN backed Libyan government, the war is layered and complicated. For those caught out, trapped on the front line, the colour of the uniform they align with is as insignificant as the name of the boat the lucky few will escape on. Left behind, some have resorted to drinking toilet water to survive. Others are abducted by suspected traffickers, likely to be victims of rape, torture, exploitation and forced labour.

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These newborn refugees are learning as they go. Dotted along the coastline, they have merely postponed the horrors, momentarily escaping from the war zone. But their worry keeps this juncture temporary. A crisp refuelling stop until the fighting catches back up to them, engulfing the beach, cutting off all passages north. Glued to their person are the last of their possessions, there are no photo albums or jewellery; they were the first to be tossed to the road side when the adrenalin dropped and the weight of the luggage became unbearable. Only blankets, cooking pots, licences, passports and mobile phones were not culled.

Here, they now sit, limbs folded between four sticks hammered into the arid ground, supporting a thin, tarpaulin roof overhead. From aside it’s three, narrow, bent lines; like a child’s drawing. Those who inhabit these pop up refugee camps across Libyan beaches immediately search for crossings northwards. They are not taken aback by the blue, tideless, alluring Mediterranean and what may lie across it. Their head is not trained forwards, rather their torso is constantly a quarter of a way through a pirouette, the neck straining further still to give the eyes a better line of sight. The distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee is simple: are you running from or to? These poor souls are looking over their shoulders.

The crossings are jeopardous and risky. They are committed by some of the poorest and most desperate people in the world, who are leaving villages, communities, friends and families knowing they will never see such surroundings again. Unaccompanied minors are funded by parents who tragically send their children towards greater prospects. Denied the opportunity of touching their future grandchildren, knowing full well all contact will likely be lost forever.

Often, the boats are over packed and unbalanced; swaying as the winds pick up, capsizing under the immense weight of its fragile cargo. One in five migrants who tried to escape Libya by sea in September died or disappeared — the highest ratio recorded. The availability of these deadly, succulent, promised passages are ever increasing. As each season progresses, off the coast of North Africa, a fisherman’s catch becomes scarcer. Their tired, limping vessels grant their owner one final payout. The refugees congregating at the beaches will pay upwards of $1,000 to be taxied to Europe. Usually 500 or so are crammed aboard every nook and cranny, between them, raising over half a million dollars in sticky, weathered cash. In seaside towns across North Africa, these wretched migrations drive the local economy.

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The EU Dublin Convention states that people claiming political asylum have to remain in the first safe country they land in. Much to the annoyance of nearby Italy, now under the rule of a far-right populist government. The Italians have borne the brunt of the crisis: since 2014 more than 650,000 migrants have landed on the peninsula’s shores. Now their ships ignore the sinking, their press shows no pathos towards corpses floating hypnotically past them. Italian boats even block the way of migrants until the EU-endorsed Libyan coastguard arrives to tug them back to Africa.

Last September seven in 10 of these helpless souls were caught and returned by the Libyan coastguard, while only one in 10 made it to Europe. In Tripoli, those returning are placed in ‘detention centres’ without judicial review, instead waiting for help from the UN, while praying not to be sold to traffickers by Libyan authorities who regularly threaten and insult them. They are often left unaided in these camps, having to fight for survival. Some have been forced to become actors in the war, militias pulling them out of detention centres ordering them to move heavy weapons or pack bullets, beating those who resist.

According to the UN, there are roughly 7,000 people in “official” Libyan detention centres, including 640 children. Tragically it seems these Libyan refugees were better off in the makeshift shelters haphazardly constructed before their ill fated crossings. The UNHCR stipulated in a statement on August 30th, that hundreds had been rescued from ‘detention camps’ only for them to be abandoned in battlegrounds days later, starving, in more peril now than at any time before.

Italy, and the rest of Europe, delicately foxtrot out of responsibility for these ill-fated passengers. They are essentially treating Libya as a safe country, despite the ongoing fighting since August dovetailing reports of rapes, torture, exploitation, forced labour and physical abuse of returnees. Speaking last week at the UN general assembly, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini declared, “Some around the world are arguing that human rights are outdated, that national interest can justify the suppression of individual and collective rights. We are here today to state the opposite … Human rights are real.”

As with most bureaucracy, it seems the sentiment is there but very little visible progress is happening. Tragically, 234 migrants were reported as being either dead or missing after departing from Libya towards Europe last September; they deserve not to be forgotten, human beings whose human rights did not come soon enough. The scars of this crisis will only deepen over time. Europe should think with its heart and open its doors to Libyans.


Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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