NATO, Libya and when ‘support’ is nothing of the sort…

On 8 July, as part of their international conference in Warsaw, NATO leaders are set to agree a ‘support mission’ for Libya and the Mediterranean.

Parts of what is proposed – including, in the words of NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow ‘supporting Libya in building its defence institutions…’ – are not, on the face of it, either negative or especially controversial (though even this proposal is weighed down with a litany of previous fault and problems, as we shall see).

But others – particularly relating to Libya’s position as the ‘other state’ at the heart of the international refugee situation – are likely to prove unacceptable mistakes.

Though Syria and its grim, multi-sided Civil War – now in its sixth year – are rightly at the forefront of European minds when considering people fleeing war, chaos and terror to attempt to reach safety, Libya has for a far longer period been a temporary (in some cases permanent) stopping-point for men, women and children escaping likely early death, torture or horror.

As a state at the northern-most edge of Africa, with deep roots in the Sahara and connected by ancient and ongoing trade routes not only to the rest of the continent to its south, but also to the Mediterranean, Middle East and Europe, Libya has for more than 40 years attracted refugees, and been a ‘staging-post’ for some of them to travel further north, to Italy and beyond.

But Libya is currently mired in its own Civil War – its second in five years, which is now in its third year. It has three illegitimate and powerless governments, two reliant upon militias whose battles against one another are the war’s heart, and a third imposed upon it by the international community for the sole reason that the latter hopes it will invite it to launch airstrikes across the state, in an attempt to reach and defeat IS.

Libya, in short, is no longer a place where refugees stop. It is a state – on the brink of collapse – through which they travel as fast as they possibly can.

And it does not end at that. Because the EU’s deal with Turkey (on which far more detail is available here) which is designed specifically to prevent men, women and children fleeing violence, terror and death in Syria from entering the European Union (the single richest political bloc ever to have existed) only adds to the number of people likely to attempt to arrive via Libya.

This is because the deal does not address any of the issues causing people to flee Syria (or Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan, the other major starting points for those entering the EU from the East): all it does – indeed literally all it sets out to do – is prevent those people from crossing from Turkey to the EU.

Those people are not less desperate because of the deal. Nor are they provided with anything better than they had previously. As a result, they must seek new routes to the EU, and Libya – closer than Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and with both a less authoritarian government and less organised state structure than Egypt (indeed a less organised state structure than almost every state on Earth at the moment) – is the likeliest starting point.

Of course the clearest and most important criticism of the EU’s deal with Turkey is that it effectively closes the ‘safest’ sea route to the EU (though the horrifying experience of the last 18 months, in which more than 6,600 people have drowned in the Mediterranean proves that no sea route is safe – in part because the EU has made literally no effort whatsoever to make it so) and forces hundreds of thousands of people to attempt a far longer – and therefore far less safe – route across the sea.

There are a large number of other problems with the EU/Turkey deal, including that it has already forced – and will continue to force – men, women and children to hide from authorities who otherwise could not only have helped them survive and thrive as active members of states’ economies, (instead driving them into black market economies, stopping them from being able to contribute, and preventing people accessing health care or education), but also could have ensured they had accurate and reliable information about who had entered the EU and where they were living. Now, their deal has made that impossible.

But to return to Libya, the deal has also caused the international community to stumble to the precipice of an extremely bad mistake.

Because as noted above, the deal has not and will not prevent people from attempting to reach the EU; it has simply forced them to attempt to do so via a different route.

Perhaps in response to this – and perhaps also under the misapprehension that the Turkey deal is in some way ‘a success’ – the NATO summit is set, on 8 July, to unveil an initiative under which NATO ships and aircraft will be used to ‘target’ boats carrying refugees to the EU.

This is not, of course, to say that they will be opening fire on those boats – at least not while they are carrying human beings (though it is extremely likely that these boats will be sunk when those people have left them – opening a debate for another date about why people who were previously attempting to scrape a living from fishing are now ferrying people hundreds of miles across the sea) – but that they will be used to track and arrest the captains of the vessels, and the refugees they carry.

In the first instance, perhaps this is necessary. Though the majority of the people carrying men, women and children across the Mediterranean are not deliberately mistreating those refugees, some most certainly are, and in any case the difference between ‘deliberate’ and ‘accidental’ mistreatment is extremely small.

And people are dying as a result – the vast majority of the 6,667 people to have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean since 1 January 2015 (and that figure rises to 10,167 if we start instead on 1 January 2014) started their journey from North Africa.

But even if we accept that arrest is the best way to prevent people entering the EU – and it certainly is not – the second half of the proposal is far less reasonable.

Because the NATO proposal for approaching the issue of the refugees who have travelled to the EU is to fly people back to their home country, where they will be housed in ‘reception centres’ where they will be ‘reintegrated’.

The closer one considers that plan, the less sense it makes. First, because it involves sending people away from the EU, the richest political bloc in all of human history, to states to which the EU must presumably have decided it was safe for them to return, but then requires them to be imprisoned for an unspecified length of time in order for them to be ‘reintegrated’.

We must also note that at present the UK, one of the EU’s three richest states and a central NATO member, is currently paying Eritrea* to prevent people leaving it, despite the fact that the Eritrean government practices torture, arrests and imprisons people without even specifying the length of their sentence, conscripts young men and women indefinitely and uses its conscripted army to harass the exact towns and villages from which the conscripts have been lifted – that is, forcing those unwilling soldiers to attack their own families and friends. It is also a state wrecked by war, with too little to eat, and extremely limited health care.

*Eritrea is not alone in this – the UK and other European states are currently paying several sub-Saharan African states to ‘prevent people leaving’. The whole idea falls apart under even momentary analysis.

What, exactly, will an Eritrean ‘reintegration centre’ look like?

The proposal is an error based upon a previous error: by rushing through an unworkable and potentially disastrous ‘deal’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, the international community is now rushing to attempt to ‘shore up’ that deal with another hurried, illogical initiative.

In that, at least, it is similar to the NATO approach to Libyan politics. Having bombed IS in Syria and Iraq, with extraordinarily little effect or success, it has now convinced itself after ignoring Libya for five years that it must now ‘intervene’ to bomb IS there*, despite the fact that in Libya IS neither started the Libyan civil war, or is one of the war’s largest participants.

*One claim often made – which has the surely coincidental benefit of making it look as if the bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria are having great material effect – is that large numbers of IS members are fleeing Syria and Iraq to fight in Libya. The evidence for this is at best limited, and significantly undermined by the continued success of the despicable terror organisation in both Iraq and Syria, as well as in international terrorist outrages.

In order to do so, it has completely ignored the conflict which has enabled IS to gain a foothold in Libya, and refused to engage with either of the (admittedly illegitimate and largely powerless) governments already in place, preferring instead to impose a third – also entirely illegitimate – government, which is so unpopular it has to meet in a heavily-guarded naval base.

What Libya needs is an end to its war, which would weaken IS and strengthen the Libyan state to the point where the latter could – perhaps with international assistance – expel the former, and which would make Libya into a state where people would be able to live, rather than somewhere to leave or rush through.

Instead of this, which might be delivered by engaging with the two major militias involved in the conflict (there is no need or reason to attempt to work with IS or Al Qaeda) along with the two ‘governments’, the international community has chosen to invent an entirely new ‘side’ and pretend nothing else exists, as well as embarking on a plan to send desperate men, women and children to ‘reintegration centres’ in shady states with extremely dubious human rights records and/or an incapacity to provide for the people they govern.

On 8 July 2016, NATO is set to make a huge mistake in the Mediterranean, to match those it has already made and is continuing to make in Libya.

But it is not too late.

For the good of the state – and for the good of the wider world – we must hope its representatives work to avert this error, and right those it has already made.

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