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EU fortifies its mission on North African frontline

Supported by Libya and Tunisia, the European Union is ringing the Mediterranean with deportation camps, Helmut Dietrich reports.

“How can you forget the concentration camps built by Italian colonists in Libya into which they deported your great family – the Obeidats? Why don’t you have the self-confidence, why don’t you refuse?” the Libyan intellectual, Abi Elkafi, recently asked the Libyan ambassador in Rome, who had initiated the country’s orientation toward the West.

“The reason I write to you is the atrocious new concentration camps set up on Libya’s soil on behalf of the Berlusconi government,” Elkafi wrote in an open letter.

Elkafi went further to describe how, in June 1930, Marshal Petro Badoglio, the Italian governor of Libya, ordered the internment of large parts of the then 700,000 inhabitants of Libya. Within two years, more than 100,000 people had died of hunger and disease in the desert concentration camps. Around the same time, Badoglio had fortified the 300km-long Libyan/Egyptian border with barbed wire fence. This is how the Italian colonists destroyed the Libyan resistance. For years, they had not succeeded – neither by bombing villages and oases, nor by using poison gas. The current Italian government laughs at any demand for compensation.

The reality of the EU’s off-shores centres
In September and October 2000, pogroms against migrant workers took place in Libya and 130 to 500 sub-Saharan Africans were killed in the capitol Tripoli and surrounding areas. To escape the persecution, thousands of builders and service sector employees from Niger, Mali, Nigeria, and Ghana fled south. Many of them were stopped at road blocks in the Sahara and taken to Libyan military camps. Le Monde Diplomatique reported on several camps, where migrants and refugees have been held since 1996 – about 6,000 Ghanaians and 8,000 people from Niger alone are reported to be held in one.

The then Ghanaian president, Jerry Rawlings, visited the camp to bring back some hundred compatriots. The Somali Consultative Council appealed to Gaddafi on 22 February 2004 “to unconditionally release the Somali refugees who
are imprisoned in your country and who have started a hunger strike immediately and not send them back to the civil war in Somalia.” In the beginning of October 2004, the Italian state TV channel RAI showed pictures from a Libyan refugee camp. Hundreds of people were shown in a court yard, heavily guarded; the barracks apparently did not have sleeping facilities. Reports of some of the Somalis who have recently been deported to Libya confirm the existence of these camps.

Did the Libyan government originally build these camps in order to provide a labour force for major building projects in the south of the country (“greening the desert”)? Or were they an attempt to fight refugees in transit? In any case, the Libyan government already announced some time ago that undocumented immigrants would be imprisoned in southern Libya and deported. In December 2004, the Libyan interior minister, Nasser al-Mabruk, announced without further explanation that Tripoli had deported 40,000 migrants in the last weeks alone.

These imprisonments and deportations have now become antecedents of the so-called off-shore centres of the European Union, propagated particularly by Germany’s former interior minister, Otto Schily. Libya is the first non-European country to allow its camps to be integrated into the EU’s deportation policies.

Mostly unnoticed by the public, the EU is creating the preconditions for a new deportation regime. Whereas until recently refugees and migrants who were stopped by border police were taken into the respective EU country, there are now enormous reception capacities on the Canary Islands and on the southern Italian and eastern Greek islands. This “initial reception” is no more intended to lead to European cities or to access to already meagre EU legal protection. The camps at Europe’s peripheries are typically located near airports on former military compounds, guarded by paramilitary troops and hardly accessible even to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Contact with the outside world is made extremely difficult, if not impossible. The facilities are secured with modern prison equipment. The Canary Islands’ camp can currently hold almost 2,000 people.

The camps also mark the introduction of a social change initiated by EU states: in the 1990s refugees (commonly referred to as boat people) were welcomed by the Mediterranean population. Although the state declared a state of emergency when large numbers arrived, their plight and status remained of public interest and many locals arrived with assistance in the form of clothes, blankets and food. Currently, refugees are systematically separated from the society they arrive in – a physical dispensation that creates the organisational pre-conditions for mass deportations to places outside the EU, far from any legal or societal control. Indeed, extraterritorial, law-free zones are being created at the fringes of Europe.

Since the beginnings of the 1990s, Western European migration and refugee strategy papers have indicated that the EU intended to export the asylum procedures to places outside its borders – an approach to global migration control that would ensure that refugees and unwanted migrants from Africa, Asia and South America would not reach Europe. Central to this concept were deportation camps.

Until recently these plans could not be implemented. German authorities unsuccessfully attempted to enforce this practise in the early 1990s after the war against Iraq, when the nofly zone was created over Iraqi Kurdistan: they wanted to declare the area a “safe haven” for Iraqi refugees, to which they could be deported en masse. NATO, however, effectively implemented the practice during the war in Kosovo. Only a few weeks into the conflict, the war zone was surrounded by refugee holding camps, and thus hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the fighting and devastation were stopped in their tracks and barred from continuing into EU territory.

At the beginning of the current Iraq war, Tony Blair, then prime minister of Britain, suggested the creation of refugee camps under the supervision of the EU but outside its territory. His “new vision for refugees”, published in March 2003, foresaw returning those who would apply for asylum in the EU to outside the EU’s borders. His vision was one of a camp universe, set up by EU officers, together with the UNHCR and the notorious International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and made up of Transit Processing Centres (TPC) from where a select few refugees would be allowed to enter the EU and the rest would be transported back to safe zones near their regions of origin. When that plan went public it caused a storm of protest.

Yet, in spite of the public criticism, Otto Schily and Giuseppe Pisanu, the German and Italian interior ministers, developed the idea further in the summer of 2004. At that time, the European Commission, together with the Strategic Committee for Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum (SCIFA), were instructed to test preliminary measures of “a European asylum office with interception functions” in North Africa. In practice, this proposal implied that refugees arriving by boat through the Mediterranean were to be returned to camps located in Arab states – in collective procedures and without an individual check on their nationality, their flight route or reasons for flight.

This practise, called refoulement, is in contravention of several statutes and conventions governing international law and the rights of refugees, including the Geneva Refugee Convention, the respective constitutions of EU member states and the European Convention on Human Rights. Moreover, this practise not only concerns the violation of rights of asylum seekers, but also economic migrants fleeing poverty, hunger or similar crises, who suffer threats of imprisonment, abuse and even death.

Developing military technology in the fight against migration The first barrier for unwanted refugees and migrants is Europe’s external border policy. But since EU enlargement and the global “war on terror”, these policies are being formulated under different conditions. The anti-terrorist measures against Arab-Muslim populations have enforced the development of strong external borders. The Mediterranean Sea is the new challenge and the goal is the ‘virtual’ extension of European borders to the North African coasts. Even the docking of wooden boats is prevented.

Furthermore, the border police long to control the Sahara-Sahel-zone, together with the military and European and American secret services, thus setting up a second ‘rejection’ ring around Europe. In addition to stopping refugees, the oil and gas production in the desert has to be secured. Thus, the border surveillance agreement between Italy and Libya provides for internationalised control of the 2,000km-long coast line and also the 4,000km-long desert border of Libya.

This can hardly be achieved by boat and jeep patrols. Control technologies tried and tested in recent wars are also being deployed. Detection of refugees by air with optronic and radar technology is being tested all over the Mediterranean. By the end of October 2004, the Italian air force was trying to detect refugee boats from the air.

The Spanish Guardia Civil has rediscovered the surveillance tower. From above, the visual and electromagnetic identification technique can continuously and automatically scan the Straits of Gibraltar and the Moroccan coast. Tests are made to link all accessible data in real time in order to identify and follow all ships in the controlled area. This technology, known as SIVE (Sistema Integrado de Vigilancia Exterior), is now exported to the Greek islands.

Testing of the new technologies at the South European ‘front’ is co-ordinated by the socalled ad-hoc centres of the EU preceding the future EU border agencies. Two sea surveillance centres are based in Spain and Greece, and one air surveillance centre is located in Italy. Another is responsible for “risk analysis”. Taking the insurance business as an example and with the assistance of Europol, it is calculated where the greatest damage by irregular migration is imminent. There, surveillance is strengthened.

It is hard to say whether these EU coordinated methods have failed to date, or whether they already have fatal outcomes. On the one hand, it is reported that a planned EU manoeuvre of various national naval units in the Straits of Gibraltar and around the Canary Islands was halted because of language difficulties. On the other hand, high-tech is regarded as a magic potion that motivates border police and marines, who believe their work thereby becomes more valuable. The intensified search with technical equipment in the Straits has already forced boat people to use more dangerous waters to come to Europe.

It is important to remember that up to 500,000 people secretly cross the southern EU border every year. Whoever can afford it arrives by plane with a false passport. Whoever has relatives and friends might go on one of the ferries engaged in the massive holiday traffic. Only the poor come on wooden boats. According to reliable calculations, more than 10,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since 1992 – when visas became obligatory for the EU’s southern neighbours. The European governments, however, do not declare a state of emergency because of the huge death tolls, but because of the arrival of about 30,000 boat people per year. In late summer 2004, for instance, about 1,800 people reached the island of Lampedusa. Obviously a high figure for a small island, but small compared to the Mediterranean figure as a whole. The Italian state and the EU used them as a warning to others. Deterrence was the goal.

Oil interests and migration control – the economic agenda
The second aspect that brought the Libyan desert camps within reach of Pisanu and Schily is of an economic nature. During the past decade, Gaddafi has slowly opened up Libya’s economy, and thus the oil and gas industry, to foreign investors. In addition to Russia, Libya is the most important non-European oil supplier for Germany, and Germany is the most important goods supplier to Libya after Italy. In 2002, the German minister for trade and commerce announced an “export offensive” in the Middle East and North Africa – implying increasing investments in the oil and gas industry in these regions. The potential gains to be made from Libya have first priority here.

In the 1970s, before economic cooperation decreased, most German investments in North Africa and the Middle East were made in Libya. Today, the German Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry is eyeing investment opportunities not only in the Libyan energy sector, but also in infrastructure, telecommunications and health. Another big market is food for the population, most of which has to be imported.

24 March 2004: The British prime minister, Tony Blair, visits Gaddafi. The Dutch-British oil company Shell receives a 165 million Euro contract to produce oil and gas in Libya, forming the basis of a “long-term strategic partnership”. There is talk of a “oil against weapons” deal, because around the same time, the arms company BAE initiates talks on major business with Libya. Libyan’s armed forces want new equipment. The wish list includes night vision gear and air radar.

July 2004: Libya clears the way for the participation of foreign investors in state companies. The government decides on the privatisation of 160 state companies, 54 of which cannot only sell shares to foreign investors, but can be taken over by foreign capital by allowing for majority shareholding. The plan is to privatise 360 firms by this year. At the end of July, the WTO lobbies for the accession of Libya. In August 2004, the German government re-introduces the so-called Hermes-Bürgschaften for Libya, which allows exporting companies to insure themselves against economic and political risk scenarios (many exporting firms can only export to certain countries with this guarantee).

5 September 2004: the Libyan state invites numerous interested firms from all over the world for a presentation on new oil and gas fields. The neo-liberal Libyan prime minister, Shukri Ghanim, announces that production licences will be put up for bidding in the coming months. The low production costs and high quality of Libyan oil is attractive to foreign investors.

7 October 2004: Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi, visits Libya for the fourth time that year. This time to open the pipeline Greenstream of the “West Libyan Gas Project,” built and operated by the Italian ‘energy giant’ ENI, one of the major foreign companies active in Libya. A sum of 6.6 billion dollars were invested into the 520km-pipeline, now supplying gas from the Libyan Mellitah to Sicily. The day for the opening was chosen to coincide with the “Day of Revenge” in Libya, which celebrates the victory over colonialism. In consideration of Belusconi, Gaddafi renames it the “Day of Friendship” and declares the once-despised enemy to be a welcome guest.

11 October 2004: The EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxemburg resolve the political barriers to economic cooperation with Libya. The council of ministers revokes the relevant UN sanctions from 1992 and 1993. The arms embargo is also revoked by the general EU framework for arms exports to third world countries. The precondition for these changes was the Libyan agreement to pay compensations for the victims of a bomb attack on a Berlin discotheque in 1986, similar to Libya taking responsibility for the attack on the Pan-Am jet that crashed over Lockerbie. Furthermore, Libya is introducing a neo-liberal market economy, as laid down in the Euromed partnership agreements between the EU and its Mediterranean neighbouring states.

14/15 October 2004: Chancellor Schröder, accompanied by German industrialists, visits Gaddafi. Schröder signs a bilateral investment agreement and is present when oil and gas concessions are granted to the German company Wintershall, a subsidiary of the BASF group, represented in the country since 1958 and one of the leading foreign producers with an investment of USD1.2 billion. During the chancellor’s visit, the German RWE group also started business in oil and gas production, and the German Siemens group received contracts worth 180 million. Germany’s economic goal is to dominate the Libyan foreign investment market. When Gaddafi mentions to the chancellor that Rommel’s landmines are still causing accidents and that it is high time to clear them, the German side ignores the issue without comment.

The foreign policy agenda
The third reason for Schily and Pisanu’s interest in the desert is of a military nature and is closely connected with border fortification, camp policy and oil and gas production: the German economy openly links economic aims in North Africa and the Middle East with its military planning, because the markets in question are said to “have specific security risks”. This is why on 11 February 2005, the Federal Association for German Industry and the Federal Association of German Banks directly linked its Conference on Financing in the Region North Africa Middle East to the Munich Security Conference, which takes place annually to enable Western states to coordinate their military policies and war tactics. EU foreign policy therefore joined EU strategies regarding refugees, the military and the economy in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Like Pakistan and Turkey, Libya could soon be a privileged partner of the West as a stronghold against Islamism and Africa’s failing states. Because of his leading role in Africa’s integration and the African Union (which replaced the Organisation of African Unity in 2001), Gaddafi has a special influence in many dependent states. This became clear during his role in freeing the hostages from Switzerland, Germany and Austria who were held in the Sahara. Negotiators and money from Libya also played a central role in the negotiations around some Western tourists who were held by extremists on the Philippines in the summer of 2000. Now British officers will operate as consultants to the Libyan army. A military co-operation with Greece is also agreed upon. Resulting from a deal with Italy in 2003, Libya is currently purchasing boats, jeeps, radar equipment, and helicopters for border surveillance. Italian trainers and consultants are already in the country. According to press reports, Rome supplied tents and other material for three camps in Libya in the first days of August.

“The camps are being set up,” said Pisanu in an interview with the newspaper La Republica, “they were never under discussion.”

Meanwhile, the Italian navy is guarding large areas of the Libyan coast. Under pressure from Rome, Egypt is controlling the Red Sea for refugee ships. Funded with money from Italy, Tunisia is operating 13 deportation prisons of which 11 are kept secret, safe from public scrutiny. It is said that many of those refugees and migrants deported from Italy are being transported to the Tunisian-Algerian desert and abandoned there.

The Western industrial countries have described the assumed danger in and from the Mediterranean region in two scenarios: One focuses on Islamic fundamentalism, the other on uncontrolled migration. It is surprising how these two completely different social phenomena are conflated in this vision of threat. Agreements of the EU countries state that al-Qaeda and boat people use the same North African networks. In the meantime, search units are being formed whose remits are to fight both enemies together.



This article first appeared in the German journal Konkret and in print in Chimurenga 16

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