The Covid-19 crisis had an immediate impact on migrants, both those who remain in Libya and those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Amera Markous is the Libya Team Leader for the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) North Africa, where she is coordinating data collection activities in Libya and managing a team of enumerators across the country. She previously worked with UNHCR and partner organizations in emergency programs in Libya. Amera Markous holds a master’s degree in Humanitarian Action from Geneva and was awarded the Swiss Humanitarian Award for her graduation dissertation titled “Humanitarian Action and Anti-migration Paradox: a case study of UNHCR and IOM in Libya”. She is aiming to break existing stereotypes and introduce changes on the perception of migration in the region. We spoke with Amera Markous about the study “The impact of COVID-19 on EU Mediterranean migration policies”, which she and her colleagues from MMC conducted in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).
Ms. Markous, what is the current political situation in Libya?
The study finds that, at the onset of the pandemic, the willingness of some officials to close some detention centres in the country suggested an improvement in migration management, in relation to the protection of refugees and migrants from the spread of COVID-19. However, the situation for people on the move in Libya has since changed drastically, with the mass arrests of more than 5,000 refugees and migrants in just one security operation in October 2021 in Tripoli. The upcoming presidential elections in December will play a key role in shaping future migration policies and procedures in Libya as well as the wider Mediterranean region, with Italy already expressing its fear of increased crossings from Libya, if elections fail and new conflicts emerge.
Can we say how many migrants are currently in the country?
What risks were migrants and refugees in Libya exposed to during the early phases of the pandemic?
Looking back at the time of working on this study in November 2020, the situation of refugees and migrants in Libya was precarious due to the conflict in Tripoli and the impact of COVID-19 and associated containment measures, which not only constrained people’s access to basic services and livelihood opportunities, but allegedly exposed them to the risk of detention if they tested positive.
This study finds that among interviewed refugees and migrants there was a perceived increased risk of detention since the pandemic started, as 57.5% of surveyed respondents (115 out of 200) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “There is an increased risk of arbitrary arrest and detention since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic”. This perception limited some refugees and migrants’ access to key services and assistance, as they were too frightened to leave their homes. Additionally, to halt the spread of COVID-19 across borders, evacuation and voluntary humanitarian return programs were suspended until August 2020, leaving some refugee and migrant to believe that they have no choice but to cross the sea to Europe to seek protection and better opportunities, regardless the risks associated with the sea crossing or the attempts to prevent their arrivals.
In the study, you describe how EU policies in relation to COVID-19 affect the lives of migrants in Libya. What did you find out in your research?
To be clear, this study finds no evidence for COVID-19 impacting the substance of migration policies in the Mediterranean; instead, the pandemic appears to have impacted how migration policies and procedures have been implemented on the ground. For instance, we saw examples reported Malta and Italy, where the pandemic was used as a justification to prevent arrivals and deny entry to INGO rescue ships carrying refugees and migrants.
Additionally, an interviewed EU official did note that Member States had changed procedures to comply with their health rules during the pandemic, which in some cases failed “to guarantee both health security and the respect of the rights of migrants”. This aligns with one example provided by a researcher from Statewatch, who said that the EU had used ships for quarantine, which put refugees and migrants at greater risk of exposure. This researcher maintained that refugees and migrants who tested positive on the European mainland were brought onto the quarantine ships, and that one migrant under 18 years old lost his life because he was made to wait for 10 days before he was disembarked, due to the insufficient medical facilities on the ship. In such manner, COVID-19 health procedures had, at times, significant consequences on the lives and human rights conditions of refugees and migrants undertaking the journey across the Mediterranean.
Another key finding was around refugees and migrants’ awareness of the policies and procedures of the EU and whether this featured in their migration decision-making. We found that many of the surveyed refugees and migrants were generally aware of migration policies and practices in Libya, including interceptions and returns at sea, detention, and deportations. When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on migration policies in Libya and at sea, less than half of respondents (44%) noted related changes to policies and procedures. Moreover, when asked if migration policies in Libya and the Mediterranean Sea impacted their migration journey to Libya, more than half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had an impact.
In terms of access to information, surveyed refugees and migrants highlighted that they most often received information on migration policies and changes in procedures from peers who had successfully arrived in Europe via a Mediterranean crossing. For information about detention centres, interviewed community leaders noted receiving information from their embassies or from detainees who have phones. They in turn share the information with their community through designated WhatsApp groups, face-to-face meetings, and phone calls. A few others reported accessing information through smugglers.
What alternative approach should the EU and its member states take in Libya and towards the management of migration in the Mediterranean?
Based on the findings of this study, we recommend that the EU and member states start shifting their focus in Libya, by ceasing any support that contributes to the cycle of interception and detention; and instead to support local Libyan institutions to better respond to the needs of refugees and migrants, especially the government’s COVID-19 response. Furthermore, we recommend that the EU and member states fund humanitarian programs to respond to the needs of the people, rather than condition their funding to support the migration interests in the region.