(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Destination Europe: Desperation

    As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.

    Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Libya's southern borders

     

    The first time Ousmane Bah was abandoned in the desert, it was June 2017. Five of the people he was with died. He was 21 years old and had left his home in Guinea a couple of months earlier, after his father was killed in a flare-up of political violence. Ousmane was afraid the killers would come for him next, so he decided to try to escape to Europe, where, he said, “they respect the law and human rights”.

     

    Guinea is part of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which has a visa-free travel arrangement for citizens of its 15 member countries. As Ousmane crossed borders on commercial buses, no one asked to see his passport or questioned him about where he was going. It was easy progress, that is until he reached the city of Agadez in Niger.

     

    Agadez has long been a hub for regional migration. Following the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, it became the gateway for people travelling from West Africa to Europe via Libya. As hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants began to arrive on European shores, the EU began searching for ways to stem the flow. On the route from West Africa, that effort focused on Agadez. Six months before Ousmane arrived in the city, the government of Niger had begun enforcing a law that criminalised the irregular movement of people to Libya.

     

    The EU-backed crackdown on irregular migration has not so much stopped the movement of people from Niger to Libya as forced it underground. A recent report by the research initiative REACH found that, since the beginning of 2017, there has been a diversification of the routes that people take to arrive in Libya, in large part due to the restrictions introduced in Niger. “Key informants” cited in the study – who included law enforcement officials, local leaders, activists, smugglers, and humanitarian aid workers – reported that “they had not witnessed a decrease in arrivals of refugees and migrants from the southern borders.”

     

    The view of those on the ground in Agadez is that tighter security has made the journey more difficult and dangerous. Migrants end up stuck in stark living conditions for months while they search for a way forward; drivers take riskier routes through the desert; and the number of people abandoned during the trip has increased. Facing such obstacles, some people give up and go home. But others still risk everything – even death – to get one step closer to Europe.

     

    Because the migration business has been pushed underground, there’s no way to tell how many migrants are stuck in Agadez while searching for a way to Libya. At the beginning of March, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned of increasing humanitarian needs and “thousands” of stranded people. Local government officials say that the population of the city – around 120,000 according to a 2012 census – has doubled, or even tripled, in the past couple of years in part because of stranded migrants. But there are no reliable statistics.

     

    “I only thought about death”

     

    Temperatures in the desert around Agadez soar to around 55 C (130 F). There is no protection from the elements, and the trip across the barren landscape to the Libyan border takes three to four days. Still, being abandoned once didn’t discourage Ousmane from trying again.

     

    The first time, the driver who was taking him had been spooked when he heard that a military patrol was close by. He told the 25 people in the back of the pickup truck to get out and then sped off across the sand. “He wanted to escape because when [the military] catch drivers they go to jail,” Ousmane explained.

     

    For the next day and night, the group was alone with only a little bit of water they had carried with them. It soon ran out. Three young boys and two older men died from the heat and dehydration. “I thought I was going to die,” Ousmane said. “For 24 hours, I only thought about death.”

    In a stroke of luck, a French military patrol from a base close to the Libyan border found Ousmane and the other survivors and brought them to safety.

     

    Three months later, Ousmane tried again. He left Agadez with 20 other people, including nine women and two small children. When they stopped for a rest, the driver told the passengers that he was going to a nearby town to get gas and food. “He took the vehicle with him [and] left us, just like that,” Ousmane said. The driver never came back.

     

    “As far as you could see, there was nothing,” Ousmane continued, his voice rising as he described the empty expanse of sand that surrounded him. “The only thing you could do was cover your head with your clothing to provide some shade.”

     

    One day stretched into two, and then three and four. Again, Ousmane thought he was going to die. But on the fifth day, a trading caravan appeared on the horizon. Ousmane was rescued. Miraculously, this time, no one died.

     

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    Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.
    2 / 3

    Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.
    3 / 3

    Smuggler pickup trucks impounded by the Niger military.

     

     
     
     

    Forced into more dangerous routes

     

    The route from Agadez to Libya has always been dangerous. The desert is difficult to navigate, the environment unforgiving. If a lone pickup goes off course or breaks down, there is little hope its passengers will survive. Even before the anti-smuggling law, the corpses of abandoned migrants were found from time to time. People who reached Europe often told stories about callous drivers who left passengers to die when they fell out as the trucks bounced over the uneven terrain.

     

    For the EU, these stories are evidence that the migration business must be stopped: as long as it continues, the argument goes, migrants will be subjected to abuse by smugglers. But critics say that EU-supported policies are intensifying, not mitigating, the dangers and making the route to Libya even more deadly.

     

    ☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief

     

    1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:

     

    In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.

     

    2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard

     

    The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.

     

    3. Co-opting militias

     

    July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.

     

    4.  Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration

     

    European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.

     

    5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism

     

    For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.

     

    Since the anti-smuggling law was put in place, the International Organization for Migration has recorded a “marked increase” in the number of migrants abandoned in the desert. Military patrols now monitor water wells and the most direct routes to the border, forcing drivers and their passengers deeper into the desert. Among former and current smugglers and local government officials in Agadez, it is common knowledge that the fear of arrest is resulting in drivers abandoning their passengers when they suspect a military patrol is close by.

     

    It is impossible to know just how many people have died in the desert as a result. But more than 6,500 have been rescued by EU-funded, IOM-coordinated search and rescue missions since October 2016 – around the same time the Nigerien government began enforcing the anti-smuggling law. “What’s the percentage of those saved compared to those who didn’t make it? We don’t know,” Alberto Preato, an IOM programme manager in Niger, said. “The desert is enormous.”

     

    Life in the ghetto

     

    Back in Agadez, survivors of failed desert crossings – and people trying to reach Libya for the first time – end up stuck in difficult conditions while they search for a way out. The tallest structure in the city is a centuries-old, eight-storey, mud-packed minaret. Most of the other buildings are low compounds surrounded by seven- to eight-foot tall red-brown walls. Each compound is like a small fort, with its outer walls concealing what’s inside.

     

    In the sprawling western suburbs of the city, where the roads are made of deeply rutted dirt and many homes have no electricity or water, a number of these compounds house migrants. People in Agadez call them ghettos. Before the law, their existence was accepted, but running a ghetto now can land someone in jail. Owners must either pay bribes to the police to turn a blind eye or migrants must play a game of cat and mouse to avoid being caught.

     

    Ousmane was staying in one of these compounds towards the end of March. Police had raided it the day before. He sat on reed mats on a dirt floor surrounded by graffiti-covered walls while sharing his story. There was no running water, electricity, or furniture in the house – only a small gas burner and a collection of battered pans stacked against one wall. Young men from various West African countries trickled in in their twos and threes; clothes dirt-stained and ripped. They didn’t all come at once, they said, because they were suspicious that a visitor might have been part of a police trap and wanted to minimise their chances of all being caught.

     

    In total, there were around 17 people staying in the ghetto. Several were clearly boys under the age of 18. “There are a lot of us who have been picked up by the police,” Ousmane said.

    ousmane_bah_22_in_ghetto_in_agadez_2_edit.jpg

    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Ousmane Bah, now 22, in a ghetto of Agadez.

    The anti-smuggling law criminalises the migration business, not people migrating. So Ousmane and the others aren’t technically breaking the law by being in Agadez. That, apparently, doesn’t stop the police from detaining them for two to three days when they are caught. “We spend the night here, and at 2 a.m., if the cops arrive, we leave running, only wearing our shorts, and then have to sneak back in like thieves,” Ousmane said.

     

    By March, this had been his life in Agadez for close to a year. He had paid $700 to the smugglers who abandoned him in the desert and was out of money. Even if he could afford it, he wasn’t sure he would want to try to reach Libya again after his two close calls. Returning home also wasn’t an option, though. He was still afraid of his father’s killers and had applied for refugee status with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. After five months of waiting without news, he grew impatient and gave up.

     

    Some of the young men and boys in the ghetto were still trying to reach Libya and Europe. Others had given up. In mid-May, Ousmane ended up trying to cross the desert again. This time, he made it to Libya and was in Tripoli trying to find a way to cross the sea.

     

    Returning home as last resort

     

    Perhaps the best indication of just how effective the crackdown on smuggling has been is the number of people participating in IOM’s programme for assisted voluntary return. The programme – funded by the EU – helps migrants who decide to go back, for whatever reason, return to their home countries. In 2015 – the year before the anti-smuggling law came into effect – IOM assisted just over 1,700 people to return home from northern Niger. In 2017, the number jumped to more than 7,000. So far this year, IOM has already facilitated the return of over 5,000 people.

     

    Some of the people opting to return made it to Libya and ended up in detention centres or were forced into slavery. After escaping, they returned to Niger, according to Preato, the IOM programme manager. Others were rescued in the desert or ended up stuck in Agadez. Still others went to Algeria in search of work and were dumped in the desert north of Agadez after being caught up in what Human Rights Watch has described as a “wave of deportations” carried out by the Algerian government. Regardless, the decision to go home is usually an absolute last resort.

     

    Alasan Bah’s story is typical.

     

    One afternoon in March, Bah, a 33-year-old from Gambia, was outside an IOM centre in Agadez. He was sitting on a cinder block in the shadow of a wall doing the best he could to avoid the heat. About 15 other people were gathered around in the dust. All of them were waiting to return to their countries.

    iom_center_in_agadez_2_small.jpg

    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    The IOM centre in Agadez.

    Alasan had left Gambia two years earlier, in March 2016. He had been working in a restaurant, but was frustrated by what felt like a dead-end job. “The salary was from hand to mouth. That’s why I left,” he said. “I decided to find greener pastures outside.”

     

    His search for better opportunity took him to Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and finally Algeria. “This bad road to Europe was not my intention,” he said. Instead, he was one of many young Africans migrating within the continent. But, after two years he was giving up.

     

    “You cannot just keep working as a donkey,” he said. “I was looking for my chance, but I can see that it is not easy. That is why I am returning to my country.”

     

    Alasan wanted to start a small business buying and selling goods when he got home, but he didn’t even have enough money to pay for his own bus ticket back. Almost two months later, he was back in Gambia. “Many people and other members of the family [are] saying I am a loser, calling me all such names, because I come home empty-handed,” he wrote in a text message. “Every day, life is getting hard. No work. So survival is not easy.”

     

    For many, starting from scratch while facing the ostracisation that comes with going home empty-handed is not an acceptable option.

     

    Better to risk it than die poor

     

    On an oppressively hot evening at the end of March, a 31-year-old from Sierra Leone who asked to be called Mousa sat at a table outside of a hotel in the Nigerien capital, Niamey. An diesel generator whirred in the background as he told the story of how his attempt to reach Europe stalled even before he could make it to Agadez.

     

    Mousa was born in one of Sierra Leone’s richest diamond-producing regions, but the profits from the trade didn’t benefit the local population. His education was interrupted by the civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, and he wasn’t able to continue after his first year of primary school.

     

    Mousa’s opportunity to escape poverty came during the Ebola epidemic. His big break? A job with the Red Cross burying the bodies of people who had died from the virus. “We buried more than 20 to 25 people per day – women and children,” Mousa said.

     

    The job paid well enough for him to save some money – money he used to buy a taxi that he hoped would give him a good source of income when the epidemic finally ended. By the time he realised the taxi had a faulty engine, it was too late. He didn’t have enough cash left to afford repairs. That was the last straw. “I decided to leave,” he said. “Each time when you start rising, you’re going to fall and you don’t have someone that can assist you.”

     

    He was also frustrated by Sierra Leone’s political class, which he said enriched itself from corruption instead of creating opportunity and a social safety net for the poor. “We look at all these things and we say: ‘Here is not a place to live.’ So we have to go and find another place,” Mousa said.

     

    Before leaving Sierra Leone, Mousa already knew about the crackdown on migration in Agadez and the dangers of crossing the desert. He had heard the reports about slavery, kidnapping, and torture in Libya and the stories of shipwrecks and people drowning in the Mediterranean. He even knew about the hostility directed towards African migrants in Europe. None of it deterred him. The way he saw it, he was born poor in Africa, and if he stayed on the continent, he would die poor, too. Compared to that fate, the risks involved in trying to reach Europe seemed worth it – regardless of the obstacles the EU tried to place in his way.

     

    “Either you die or… you make it,” Mousa said.

     

    er/ag

    Next in Destination Europe: Deportation

    The arrival in Agadez of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: it was the first time a group of refugees and asylum seekers had travelled south from Libya in search of protection instead of north towards Europe. Once the first group arrived, more kept coming – until there were around 2,000. European policies have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year, but the fact that the Sudanese were compelled to head back to Agadez and that their tense reception ultimately resulted in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya speaks to a broader truth: the international refugee protection system is failing.

    Read the previous instalments in this special report:

    Destination Europe: Homecoming

    Destination Europe: Evacuation

    Destination Europe: Frustration

    Nearly dying in the Sahara doesn’t deter some migrants from trying again and again to reach Europe
    Destination Europe: Desperation
  • Destination Europe: Evacuation

    As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.

    Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Libya's southern borders

     

    Four years of uncontrolled migration starting in 2014 saw more than 600,000 people cross from Libya to Italy, contributing to a populist backlash that is threatening the foundations of the EU. Stopping clandestine migration has become one of Europe’s main foreign policy goals, and last July the number of refugees and migrants crossing the central Mediterranean dropped dramatically. The EU celebrated the reduced numbers as “good progress”.

     

    But, as critics pointed out, that was only half the story: the decline, resulting from a series of moves by the EU and Italy, meant that tens of thousands of people were stuck in Libya with no way out. They faced horrific abuse, and NGOs and human rights organisations accused the EU of complicity in the violations taking place.

     

    Abdu is one who got stuck. A tall, lanky teenager, he spent nearly two years in smugglers’ warehouses and official Libyan detention centres. But he’s also one of the lucky ones. In February, he boarded a flight to Niger run (with EU support) by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to help some of those stranded in Libya reach Europe. Nearly 1,600 people have been evacuated on similiar flights, but, seven months on, only 174 have been resettled to Europe.

    abdu_2.jpg

    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Abdu, an Eritrean teenager, spent nearly two years in smugglers’ warehouses and official Libyan detention centres.

    The evacuation programme is part of a €500-million ($620-million) effort to resettle 50,000 refugees over the next two years to the EU, which has a population of more than 500 million people. The target is an increase from previous European resettlement goals, but still only represents a tiny fraction of the need – those chosen can be Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon as well as refugees in Libya, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia – countries that combined host more than 6.5 million refugees.

     

    The EU is now teetering on the edge of a fresh political crisis, with boats carrying people rescued from the sea being denied ports of disembarkation, no consensus on how to share responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees within the continent, and increasing talk of further outsourcing the management of migration to African countries.

     

    Against this backdrop, the evacuation and resettlement programme from Libya is perhaps the best face of European policy in the Mediterranean. But, unless EU countries offer more spots for refugees, it is a pathway to safety for no more than a small handful who get the luck of the draw. As the first evacuees adjust to their new lives in Europe, the overwhelming majority are left behind.

     

    ☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief

     

    1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:

     

    In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.

     

    2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard

     

    The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.

     

    3. Co-opting militias

     

    July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.

     

    4.  Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration

     

    European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.

     

    5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism

     

    For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.

     

    Four months after arriving in Niger, Abdu is still waiting to find out if and when he will be resettled to Europe. He’s still in the same state of limbo he was in at the end of March when IRIN met him in Niamey, the capital of Niger. At the time, he’d been out of the detention centre in Libya for less than a month and his arms were skeletally thin.

     

    “I thought to go to Europe [and] failed. Now, I came to Niger…. What am I doing here? What will happen from here? I don’t know,” he said, sitting in the shade of a canopy in the courtyard of a UNHCR facility. “I don’t know what I will be planning for the future because everything collapsed; everything finished.”

     

    Abdu’s story 

     

    Born in Eritrea – one of the most repressive countries in the world – Abdu’s mother sent him to live in neighbouring Sudan when he was only seven. She wanted him to grow up away from the political persecution and shadow of indefinite military service that stifled normal life in his homeland.

     

    But Sudan, where he was raised by his uncle, wasn’t much better. As an Eritrean refugee, he faced discrimination and lived in a precarious legal limbo. Abdu saw no future there. “So I decided to go,” he said.

     

    Like so many other young Africans fleeing conflict, political repression, and economic hardship in recent years, he wanted to try to make it to Europe. But first he had to pass through Libya.

     

    After crossing the border from Sudan in July 2016, Abdu, then 16 years old, was taken captive and held for 18 months. The smugglers asked for a ransom of $5,500, tortured him while his relatives were forced to listen on the phone, and rented him out for work like a piece of equipment.

     

    Abdu tried to escape, but only found himself under the control of another smuggler who did the same thing. He was kept in overflowing warehouses, sequestered from the sunlight with around 250 other people. The food was not enough and often spoiled; disease was rampant; people died from malaria and hunger; one woman died after giving birth; the guards drank, carried guns, and smoked hashish, and, at the smallest provocation, spun into a sadistic fury. Abdu’s skin started crawling with scabies, his cheeks sank in, and his long limbs withered to skin and bones.

     

    One day, the smuggler told him that, if he didn’t find a way to pay, it looked like he would soon die. As a courtesy – or to try to squeeze some money out of him instead of having to deal with a corpse – the smuggler reduced the ransom to $1,500.

     

    Finally, Abdu’s relatives were able to purchase his freedom and passage to Europe. It was December 2017. As he finally stood on the seashore before dawn in the freezing cold, Abdu remembered thinking: “We are going to arrive in Europe [and] get protection [and] get rights.”

     

    But he never made it. After nearly 24 hours at sea, the rubber dinghy he was on with around 150 other people was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which, since October 2016, has been trained and equipped by the EU and Italy.

     

    Abdu was brought back to the country he had just escaped and put in another detention centre.

     

    This one was official – run by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Irregular Migration. But it wasn’t much different from the smuggler-controlled warehouses he’d been in before. Again, it was overcrowded and dirty. People were falling sick. There was no torture or extortion, but the guards could be just as brutal. If someone tried to talk to them about the poor conditions “[they are] going to beat you until you are streaming blood,” Abdu said.

     

    Still, he wasn’t about to try his luck on his own again in Libya. The detention centre wasn’t suitable for human inhabitants, Abdu recalled thinking, but it was safer than anywhere he’d been in over a year. That’s where UNHCR found him and secured his release.

    The circuitous routes Eritrean and Ethiopian evacuees took to Europe

     



    The lucky few

     

    The small village of Thal-Marmoutier in France seems like it belongs to a different world than the teeming detention centres of Libya.

     

    The road to the village runs between gently rolling hills covered in grapevines and winds through small towns of half-timbered houses. About 40 minutes north of Strasbourg, the largest city in the region of Alsace, bordering Germany, it reaches a valley of hamlets that disrupt the green countryside with their red, high-peaked roofs. It’s an unassuming setting, but it’s the type of place Abdu might end up if and when he is finally resettled.

     

    In mid-March, when IRIN visited, the town of 800 people was hosting the first group of refugees evacuated from Libya.

     

    It was unseasonably cold, and the 55 people housed in a repurposed section of a Franciscan convent were bundled in winter jackets, scarves, and hats. Thirty of them had arrived from Chad, where they had been long-time residents of refugee camps after fleeing Boko Haram violence or conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur. The remaining 25 – from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan – were the first evacuees from Libya. Before reaching France, they, like Abdu, had been flown to Niamey.

     

    The extra stop is necessary because most countries require refugees to be interviewed in person before offering them a resettlement spot. The process is facilitated by embassies and consulates, but, because of security concerns, only one European country (Italy) has a diplomatic presence in Libya.

     

    To resettle refugees stuck in detention centres, UNHCR needed to find a third country willing to host people temporarily, one where European resettlement agencies could carry out their procedures. Niger was the first – and so far only – country to volunteer.

     

    “For us, it is an obligation to participate,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s influential interior minister, said when interviewed by IRIN in Niamey. Niger, the gateway between West Africa and Libya on the migration trail to Europe, is the top recipient of funds from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, an initiative launched in 2015 to “address the root causes of irregular migration”.

     

    “It costs us nothing to help,” Bazoum added, referring to the evacuation programme. “But we gain a sense of humanity in doing so.”

    farida_1_resize.jpg

    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Farida, a 24-year-old aspiring runner from Ethiopia, was waiting in March to move into her own apartment in France.

    ‘Time is just running from my life’

     

    The first evacuees landed in Niamey on 12 November. A little over a month later, on 19 December, they were on their way to France.

     

    By March, they had been in Thal-Marmoutier for three months and were preparing to move from the reception centre in the convent to individual apartments in different cities.

     

    Among them, several families with children had been living in Libya for a long time. But most of the evacuees were young women who had been imprisoned by smugglers and militias, held in official detention centres, or often both.

     

    “In Libya, it was difficult for me,” said Farida, a 24-year-old aspiring runner from Ethiopia. She fled her home in 2016 because of the conflict between the government and the Oromo people, an ethnic group.

     

    After a brief stay in Cairo, she and her husband decided to go to Libya because they heard a rumour that UNHCR was providing more support there to refugees. Shortly after crossing the border, Farida and her husband were captured by a militia and placed in a detention centre.

     

    “People from the other government (Libya has two rival governments) came and killed the militiamen, and some of the people in the prison also died, but we got out and were taken to another prison,” she said. “When they put me in prison, I was pregnant, and they beat me and killed the child in my belly.”

     

    Teyba, a 20-year-old woman also from Ethiopia, shared a similar story: “A militia put us in prison and tortured us a lot,” she said. “We stayed in prison for a little bit more than a month, and then the fighting started…. Some people died, some people escaped, and some people, I don’t know what happened to them.”

     

    Three months at the reception centre in Thal-Marmoutier had done little to ease the trauma of those experiences. “I haven’t seen anything that made me laugh or that made me happy,” Farida said. “Up to now, life has not been good, even after coming to France.”

     

    The French government placed the refugees in the reception centre to expedite their asylum procedures, and so they could begin to learn French.

     

    Everyone in the group had already received 10-year residency permits – something refugees who are placed directly in individual apartments or houses usually wait at least six months to receive. But many of them said they felt like their lives had been put on pause in Thal-Marmoutier. They were isolated in the small village with little access to transportation and said they had not been well prepared to begin new lives on their own in just a few weeks time.

     

    “I haven’t benefited from anything yet. Time is just running from my life,” said Intissar, a 35-year-old woman from Sudan.

    intissar_1_resize.jpg

    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Intissar, a 35-year-old from Sudan, spent several months in Thal-Marmoutier earlier this year completing the asylum process.

    A stop-start process

     

    Despite their frustrations with the integration process in France, and the still present psychological wounds from Libya, the people in Thal-Marmoutier were fortunate to reach Europe.

     

    By early March, more than 1,000 people had been airlifted from Libya to Niger. But since the first group in December, no one else had left for Europe. Frustrated with the pace of resettlement, the Nigerien government told UNHCR that the programme had to be put on hold.

     

    “We want the flow to be balanced,” Bazoum, the interior minister, explained. “If people arrive, then we want others to leave. We don’t want people to be here on a permanent basis.”

     

    Since then, an additional 148 people have been resettled to France, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, and other departures are in the works. “The situation is improving,” said Louise Donovan, a UNHCR communications officer in Niger. “We need to speed up our processes as much as possible, and so do the resettlement countries.”

     

    A further 312 people were evacuated directly to Italy. Still, the total number resettled by the programme remains small. “What is problematic right now is the fact that European governments are not offering enough places for resettlement, despite continued requests from UNHCR,” said Matteo de Bellis, a researcher with Amnesty International.

     

    Less than 1 percent

     

    Globally, less than one percent of refugees are resettled each year, and resettlement is on a downward spiral at the moment, dropping by more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2017. The number of refugees needing resettlement is expected to reach 1.4 million next year, 17 percent higher than in 2018, while global resettlement places dropped to just 75,000 in 2017, UNHCR said on Monday.

     

    The Trump administration’s slashing of the US refugee admissions programme – historically the world’s leader – means this trend will likely continue.

     

    Due to the limited capacity, resettlement is usually reserved for people who are considered to be the most vulnerable. 

     

    In Libya alone, there are around 19,000 refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan registered with UNHCR – a number increasing each month – as well as 430,000 migrants and potential asylum seekers from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Many have been subjected to torture, sexual violence, and other abuses. And, because they are in Libya irregularly, resettlement is often the only legal solution to indefinite detention.

     

    In the unlikely scenario that all the sub-Saharan refugees in Libya were to be resettled, they would account for more than one third of the EU’s quota for the next two years. And that’s not taking into account people in Libya who may have legitimate grounds to claim asylum but are not on the official radar. Other solutions are clearly needed, but given the lack of will in the international community, it is unclear what those might be.

     

    “The Niger mechanism is a patch, a useful one under the circumstance, but still a patch,” de Bellis, the Amnesty researcher, said. “There are refugees… who cannot get out of the detention centres because there are no resettlement places available to them.”

     

    It is also uncertain what will happen to any refugees evacuated to Niger that aren’t offered a resettlement spot by European countries.

     

    UNHCR says it is considering all options, including the possibility of integration in Niger or return to their countries of origin – if they are deemed to be safe and people agree to go. But resettlement is the main focus. In April, the pace of people departing for Europe picked up, and evacuations from Libya resumed at the beginning of May – ironically, the same week the Nigerien government broke new and dangerous ground by deporting 132 Sudanese asylum seekers who had crossed the border on their own back to Libya.

     

    For the evacuees in Niger awaiting resettlement, there are still many unanswered questions.

     

    As Abdu was biding his time back in March, something other than the uncertainty about his own future weighed on him: the people still stuck in the detention centres in Libya.

     

    He had started his travels with his best friend. They had been together when they were first kidnapped and held for ransom. But Abdu’s friend was shot in the leg by a guard who accused him of stealing a cigarette. When Abdu tried to escape, he left his friend behind and hasn't spoken to him or heard anything about him since.

     

    “UNHCR is saying they are going to find a solution for me; they are going to help me,” Abdu said. “It’s okay. But what about the others?”

     

    er/ag/js

    Next in Destination Europe: Deportation

    The arrival in Agadez of the Sudanese – most driven from their homes in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur more than a decade ago – signalled something new: it was the first time a group of refugees and asylum seekers had travelled south from Libya in search of protection instead of north towards Europe. Once the first group arrived, more kept coming – until there were around 2,000. European policies have led to a nearly 78 percent drop in the number of people crossing the sea from Libya to Italy since July last year, but the fact that the Sudanese were compelled to head back to Agadez and that their tense reception ultimately resulted in the deportation of 132 people back to Libya speaks to a broader truth: the international refugee protection system is failing.

    Read the previous instalments in this special report:

    Destination Europe: Homecoming

    Destination Europe: Frustration

    Destination Europe: Desperation
     

    The EU has started resettling refugees from Libya, but only 174 have made it to Europe in seven months
    Destination Europe: Evacuation
  • Destination Europe: Homecoming

    As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.

    Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Libya's southern borders

    Mariam Sesay, 28, knew her family would be delighted if she were in Europe. The benefits of having someone there were obvious – better houses, children well dressed and never lacking school fees or food. Sons and daughters in Europe were the pride of their families. Everyone in Sierra Leone wanted someone in the family to be abroad.

    So when Mariam heard about the so-called “Italian Programme”, she decided she would go.  

     

    It was June 2017. Without telling anyone, she sold her father’s land, turned the $2,500 over to the “connection agent” organising her trip, and left her hometown of Magburaka in the east of Sierra Leone (on a series of buses via Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso) for Agadez in Niger, where she was told she would catch a flight to Europe.

     

    But in Niger, there was no flight, and the agent she had paid was unreachable.

    A year later, Mariam has no money, nowhere to live. She is back in Sierra Leone sleeping on the concrete floor of a house in Makeni, three hours east of the capital, Freetown. If her hosts don’t share their food with her, she doesn’t eat. The police are pursuing her for an unpaid debt. Everyone looks down on her. Even her family has disowned her.

     

    Mariam had been in nursing school before she left for Niger. She pulls a photo from her pocket, taken in the hospital ward before her departure. In it, she is wearing a nurse’s uniform and smiling broadly, a confident young woman on the brink of a professional future.

     

    Tears roll down her cheeks as she looks at the picture.

     

    It is a far cry from the woman she is today.

     

    Sitting behind a tree in the dusty yard where no one can hear her, Mariam confides that she is barely coping. “I am worried – about everything. I am worried about prison. I am lonely, stressed, depressed.”

    2400_mariam_sesay082.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Mariam Sesay: "I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but when I got back it was even worse.”

    The stigma, she says, is the least of her problems. She is haunted by what happened to her in Niger and Libya. “My secret has already become part of me,” she says, biting her lip. “It is hard to work it through.”

     

    The journey

     

    What Mariam is trying to work through began in Agadez, long the gateway for traders travelling from sub-Saharan Africa to the north. For centuries, caravans of camels carried salt, gold, ivory, and slaves across the desert sands. In recent years, convoys of pick-up trucks overflowing with people and contraband have plied the vast, difficult to govern route.

     

    The town once bustled with throngs of migrants, mostly looking for a way north to the coast and the chance to get to Europe. But in 2016, the Nigerien government began enforcing an EU-backed anti-smuggling law that drove the migration business underground.

     

    Still, it didn't take long for Mariam to join other stranded Sierra Leoneans shortly after she arrived in Agadez last year.

     

    “When we saw all the Gambians and Senegalese and Nigerians and Ghanaians, all heading across the desert, we decided to go, too,” she explains. Piling into a pick-up, the group headed off.

     

    Five months later, as Mariam left the Tripoli prison where she had been detained, again, after her second attempt to cross the Mediterranean failed, the better future she had dreamed of seemed further away than ever.

     

    This time, however, she would not try again. She decided to return home.

     

    Mariam had had enough. Along the way, she had been raped, starved, and beaten; bought and sold by captors who demanded money she didn’t have. Others phoned families back home who would go into debt cobbling funds together to free their loved ones. Not Mariam. “I didn’t have a phone, the money, or the guts to call back home,” she admits. “I would cry a lot and fear it was the end of my life, and all I could think of was how I would die here alone and no one would ever know.”

     

    On 21 November 2017, Mariam boarded the first repatriation flight organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) from Tripoli to Freetown. It was not to be a happy homecoming.

     

    A way back home

     

    In early 2017, both UNICEF and IOM published reports documenting the abuses, violence, and slavery that migrants were suffering en route to Europe through Libya. But it wasn’t until CNN’s secretly filmed footage of migrants being sold in slave auctions aired in mid-November 2017 that the world took notice and calls for action echoed around the globe.

     

    As governments focused efforts on their nationals in Libya, IOM scaled up its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme – an initiative designed to help stranded migrants return home and reintegrate. Sierra Leone had not previously been part of the repatriation programme but quickly contacted IOM. Within weeks, two flights had brought 228 migrants home.  

     

    The repatriation programme is nominally voluntary – IOM will not force anyone to return – but these impossible choices are packed full of pressure.

     

    IOM contacts migrants in the prisons and ask if they want to stay, proceed, or return. Even for those who have suffered horrific treatment before ending up in the appalling conditions where IOM often finds them, it is an agonising decision. Often the IOM’s programme is the only way to leave prison without paying the sums demanded by extortionists for release.

     

    But returning home means giving up on the dream of Europe. And as many have borrowed or stolen money or property to finance the journey, they worry about the repercussions of returning empty-handed.  

     

    Of the 338 migrants registered for the two repatriation flights in November 2017, 110 failed to board. They slipped away from the airport, some having made arrangements with airport workers offering rooms to hide those awaiting passage across the Mediterranean.  

     

    ‘I can’t forgive her’

     

    The sale of the land and the money Mariam spent has left her father, Sheik Ali Conteh, 44, seeking assistance for the first time. Her failure has compromised her family’s position in the community.

    2400_mariam_sesays_dad_sheik_conteh114.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Mariam's father, Sheik Ali Conteh: “Shame has impacted on us. I can’t forgive her.”

    “I didn’t know what my dad would say. I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but when I got back it was even worse,” Mariam says, wiping tears from her eyes. “My father and my whole family have disowned me.”

     

    Fifteen miles away from where his daughter now resides, in Makeni, Conteh pulls up a bench in front of the his modest two-room home. He looks over at his wife, resplendent in a yellow dress, ready for Friday prayers. She is silent, staring sadly.

     

    “Shame has impacted on us.” he confesses. “I can’t forgive her.”

     

    The response of Mariam’s family reflects the depth of desperation in a society stretched to breaking point by poverty.

     

    Fifteen years after war devastated the former British colony, Sierra Leone is ranked 212th out of 229 countries in terms of GDP. Poverty, unemployment, and corruption are rampant. Across the country, people struggle to put food on the table and send children to school.

     

    Lack of job opportunities has long encouraged Sierra Leoneans to seek work outside the country. Libya was the prime destination until its collapse in 2011 – a collapse, Isata Kabia pointed out during a conversation in February, (before she was replaced as Sierra Leone’s minister of social welfare) that has contributed to the flow of migrants setting out for Europe. “Prior to that, internal migration within Africa worked,” she added.

     

    The 2013-2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa further compounded the country’s problems, imposing an economic impact equivalent to $125 per person as businesses closed, tens of thousands were laid off, and agriculture went into decline.

     

    The push and the pull

     

    Given the difficulty of earning a decent living in Sierra Leone, having a family member in Europe or abroad can make all the difference.

     

    “Everyone wants to have someone in Europe. They live fine! Fine!” exclaims Chief of Women Kuma Mbayo, 70, in the eastern town of Koidu. “If I had someone there, I wouldn’t be sitting here in the dust!”

    2400_kuma_mbayo_70_chief_of_women_117.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Chief of Women Kuma Mbayo: “Everyone wants to have someone in Europe. They live fine! Fine!”

    The view of Europe from Sierra Leone is an alluring one and many migrants describe an unspoken pressure to go. “Those who left and made it to Europe are highly respected,” explains 25-year-old Sheku Kamara in Freetown. “Those that stay behind are seen as failures.”

     

    “My family was always optimistic about people travelling – they saw it as a success story – so even while I was gone, they were positive,” says Sheku, who stole $1,000 from his uncle to fund his journey. “They even organised a funeral for me when they heard I was dead,” he adds.

     

    Like Mariam, Sheku failed to reach Europe and his reception back in Sierra Leone has been similar. His stepfather Osman Kamara is far from happy to see him back again.

    Anywhere but home: Sheku Kamara’s story

    1 / 5

    Sheku Kamara spent two years trying to get to Europe.
    2 / 5

    His early attempts to cross via Morocco ended in hospital in Rabat, recovering from a near-lethal beating by security forces. After being discharged, he begged on the streets until he had enough money to make his way to Libya. But each time he tried to cross the Mediterranean he ended up in prison.
    3 / 5

    Reluctant to return home empty-handed, he tried to get sent anywhere other than Sierra Leone. “First I registered [with IOM] as Malian, then Senegalese, then Nigerian, but the Libyans took me away and when I came back the flights to those places had already gone,” he says.
    4 / 5

    ‘If I had made it – even if I didn’t send him his money, my uncle would have been able to boast and say it had been for a worthy cause and the family would have been proud someone had made it... But now, coming back after two years with nothing, my uncle sees me as a failure.’

    Still owing his uncle the money he stole, Sheku is now in hiding after his cousins threatened to stab him.
    5 / 5

    “If it were up to me,” says Sheku’s mother, Jenuba Kargbo,

    “I would have told him to continue his travelling and not come home.”

     
     
     
     
     

    “Others made it over, but he didn’t, so now I can’t accept him,” Osman rages. “He is a failure. Even if his intention was to help, he failed. We cannot accept Sheku now. He should live in the streets.”

     

    When parents discover children have stolen to make the trip, as they often have, they are initially furious, but this usually evolves into hope – hope that their debts will be repaid, hope that their loved one will reach Europe and send remittances back to help the whole family.

     

    “When my daughter left, I was so angry about her selling my land,” Mariam’s father Conteh admits. “But once I knew she had gone, I was hopeful.”

    Social media also plays a role in encouraging people to make the journey. Those who have made it post pictures of themselves on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, dressed smartly and living enviable lives, despite what their actual experience might be.

     

    “I want to believe poverty is the only problem,” says Masakama Kanamanka III, the 49-year-old Paramount Chief of Kholifa Rowalla in northern Sierra Leone. “But I also think they see greener pastures. They see people in Europe doing so well.”

    2400_paramount_chief_masakama_kanamanka_042.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Paramount Chief Masakama Kanamanka: "They see greener pastures. They see people in Europe doing so well."

    Horrors untold

     

    The rigours of the journey are downplayed too. Travel is kept secret, by both migrants and their families. With details never discussed, the facts about the journey are only discovered when it is too late.  

     

    Sheku Bangura, 31, was a teacher before he left for Europe. Now that he has failed and come back, the school won’t employ him anymore.

     

    “I know people who are in Italy, but they don’t explain how deep the problem [of travelling overland] is,” says Bangura. “They tell you to go to Niger and get a flight. But you get there, and there’s no flight. And then the smuggler disappears with all the money you’d already given them.”

    2400_sheku_bangura_chairing_meeting006.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Sheku Bangura: “When we paid out money to the agent to travel, he was so optimistic."

    Migrants describe having had no idea about the brutality and horror they invariably confront as gangs, police, rebels, and even other African migrants work the route, selling, exploiting, and extorting them – a route where beatings, starvation, kidnappings, and killings are routine, and on which women are seen as the most valuable “assets”.

     

    “We were raped day and night,” Mariam whispers, recounting her experience in Libya at the hands of people-smugglers and drivers. “If you refused, they’d beat you and shoot you. Even small boys had guns.”

     

    Many don’t survive.

     

    “Five people died in the desert as we were walking,” Hamzatu Kamara, a 12-year-old girl who travelled with her mother, Fatima, says blankly as she talks about her time in Libya. Drivers and smugglers “killed people right in front of me,” she adds, recalling how one man was beaten and then shot dead after refusing to eat the food he was offered.

    2400_re_fatima_kamara._daughter_hamzatu_068.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Hamzatu Kamara, 12: “Five people died in the desert as we were walking."

    Mariam relates how a friend died in her arms after being beaten, raped, and denied water.

     

    Seventeen-year-old Zainab says she was one of only seven out of a group of 23 migrants who survived their journey from Agadez into Libya. “Bodies were left where they died, not buried,” she says. “No one told their families.”

     

    Fanta Koroma, 18, and her siblings Fatmata, 15, and Osman, six, who were travelling in the same group as Mariam, were left alone after their mother died in the desert shortly after they crossed into Libya from Niger.

     

    “From Agadez is where we were suffering. People were dying as there was nothing to eat or drink,” explains Fanta. ”My mother started having chest pain. We only had a little water and we gave it to her, but she still had chest pain – and then she died.”

     

    The children who lost their mother: the Koroma siblings’ story

    1 / 2

    Fanta Koroma, 18, had just been promoted to the second year of junior high school when her mother, Kadijatu, told Fanta, sister Fatmata, 15, and brother Osman, six, they would be travelling to Europe from their home in Kona, the heart of Sierra Leone’s diamond mining industry. It was June 2017.
    1 / 11

    “I knew people who had gone and reached there. They are sending money back home and some are even building houses,” Fanta says. “People would always say a lot of good things about the people who made it over. So I felt it was a good thing, as, if we had made it over, things would have been much better.”
    2 / 11

    The family set out, travelling by bus to Guinea, then onwards to Mali, and, finally, to Agadez in Niger, where they piled into a pick-up truck and set off into the desert.
    3 / 11

    They had barely crossed the border into Libya when their mother, complaining of chest pains, lay down to rest. “When we saw her leaning on the sticks, resting, we thought she was sleeping. But when we tried to wake her, she didn’t wake up.”
    4 / 11

    Alone and distraught, the children had no choice but to continue on the journey. They described how fellow travellers died around them from lack of food and drink, while others were beaten and sold.

    Reaching the Libyan coast at Sabratha, armed men came and took them to the first of the three prison-like facilities where they were beaten, terrorised and starved. Six-year-old Osman was inconsolable with hunger and fear.
    5 / 11

    Eventually found and rescued by the UN, the three children boarded the IOM flight home on 24 November. The sisters gripped Osman’s hands tightly as the plane climbed and headed south over the desert where they had left their mother’s body.

    When she heard of her sister’s death, the children’s aunt, Fatmata Jalloh, 38, left her six children behind in Guinea and rushed to Sierra Leone to await the return of her nephew and nieces. “All of them were sick when they got back,” she recalls.
    6 / 11

    Osman spent a week in hospital getting blood transfusions. Ever since arriving back from Libya, Fanta has had a hacking cough and has been losing weight. She is sad she can no longer go to school – IOM will only allocate fees to those under 18. Her regret at not having reached Italy is becoming ever more acute.

    “I was hoping that getting over there would be worth the suffering,” she says. “But now we came back, and we came back with nothing, not even with our mother.”
    7 / 11

    As nothing else seemed to help Fanta, her aunt took her to traditional doctor Rugiatu Conteh. She leads Fanta into a small stall in the back of her house. Rubbing half a lime vigorously over the girl’s bare torso, Conteh turns it over and carefully examines it. Six tiny black seeds are lying on the desiccated flesh.
    8 / 11

    ‘‘My life is all derailed now,” Fanta murmurs.

    “She has been affected by witchcraft,” Conteh says, after examining the seeds.
    9 / 11

    Although back at school, 15-year-old Fatmata feels isolated and lonely. Haunted by nightmares, she misses her mother and tries to avoid the ridicule of classmates by refusing to tell anyone where she has been.
    10 / 11

    “It [the trip] changed me a little bit,” she explains. “Now, I feel sadder.”

    But it has also made her value her own country more and left her determined and ambitious for the future.

    “I want my country to be a better country,” she says, pausing before declaring proudly: ‘‘I want to be president.”
    11 / 11

    Her more immediate problem is becoming financially stable. “If not, then we won’t be able to continue our education,” she says, looking up. “And then it would be all over for us.”

     

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

    In Tripoli, migrants are imprisoned after failed sea crossings. They can be apprehended when the houses they stay in are raided, or simply when walking on the street. They can also be imprisoned by smugglers and armed gangs as well as security forces.

     

    “The same people who captured us in boats were also the same ones who would push us out to sea and then just wait to capture us again,” says Sheku Bangura, referring to the smuggling gangs.

     

    He holds up a photo taken in one of seven prison-like facilities where he was jailed, showing dozens of semi-naked men crushed and piled on top each other. Pointing to himself in red shorts amongst the tangle of bodies, he sighs: “When we paid out money to the agent to travel, he was so optimistic.”

     

    Back, but broke

     

    The first time most Sierra Leonean families find out a relative is home is when they receive a call after the migrant has arrived back at Freetown’s Lungi airport.

     

    As part of the AVRR programme, IOM promised a reintegration allowance of €1,000 per person. Designed to kick-start new lives, the funds are given not in cash but as in-kind payments to suppliers, who then give their goods to returnees, according to pre-approved “business plans”. Many returnees – including Mariam – have found ways around this by finding suppliers who will submit false transactions to IOM and hand over the cash they receive in exchange for a cut.

     

    ☰ READ MORE: EU migration policies in brief

     

    1. Discrediting of Search & Rescue NGOs:

     

    In 2016, NGOs operating boats to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy were celebrated as heroes. By the following summer, these same organisations were under attack from European politicians who levelled unsubstantiated claims that the NGOs created a pull factor for irregular migration and colluded with smugglers. In July last year, Italy introduced a ‘code of conduct’ aimed at curtailing the activities of search and rescue NGOs that caused a number of them to stop their activities. The new Italian government, which took office in June, has repeatedly blocked NGO boats carrying people rescued from the sea from docking at Italian ports, precipitating a new political crisis in Europe over migration.

     

    2. Training & Equipping the Libyan Coast Guard

     

    The EU and Italy began training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, despite it being linked to smuggling activities and implicated in human rights abuses. The goal of the programme was to increase the coast guard’s capacity to intercept migrant and refugee boats at sea and return their passengers to Libya. The programme has paid dividends this year as the rate of interception and return has increased dramatically and the Italians have favoured the Libyan Coast Guard over search and rescue NGOs while coordinating the response to distress calls at sea. People intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres in Libya where they are held indefinitely.

     

    3. Co-opting militias

     

    July 2017 was a turning point in the central Mediterranean. The number of people crossing from Libya to Italy was at an all time high, on pace to surpass 2016’s record of 181,000. Then, on 16 July, the number suddenly and dramatically dropped. In the following weeks, reports trickled out about the Italian government paying off militias involved in smuggling to switch their activities and begin policing the coast against departures. The Italian government denied the reports, but they have since been widely corroborated. As a result of this policy, and the increased activity of the Libyan Coast Guard, the arrival of asylum seekers and migrants to Italy has decreased by nearly 78 percent this year compared to last.

     

    4.  Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration

     

    European policies to curb migration led to a dramatic increase in the number of people being held in Libya’s overcrowded and nominally official detention centres. Irregular entry into Libya is criminalised and there are no courts set up in the country to handle migration related cases so people who are detained are held for indefinite periods of time. By October 2017, there were an estimated 20,000 people in migration detention in Libya. Since then, according to the latest data released in March, the UN’s migration body, the International Organization for Migration, has facilitated the return of just over 10,000 people to their countries of origin through an EU funded initiative called Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, or AVRR for short. IOM emphasises the voluntary nature of the programme, but critics say it cannot be considered truly voluntary when the only choices are to remain in detention or return home. For more on this, read the first part of this series: “Homecoming”.

     

    5. UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism

     

    For refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Libya, returning to countries of origin where their lives could be in danger is not an option. At the end of September 2017, the EU announced it would fund a programme, organised by UNHCR, for the emergency evacuation and resettlement of people who fit into this category. So far, just under 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers have been evacuated from Libya to Niger, but in seven months only 174 people have been resettled to Europe.

     

    Migrants were told the process would take at least three weeks to implement after their return. But there was no provision to take care of the immediate problem of arriving back penniless – often traumatised, sick, or disabled by beatings, and to families who have rejected them.

     

    Making matters worse, the local media erroneously announced that the failed migrants had each been given $1,000 cash immediately upon return.  

     

    “The announcement set off a firestorm in the public,” Mohamed Sanusi, 28, head of youth programmes at Freetown’s Star Radio explains. “Everybody knew people had stolen things, sold property that wasn’t theirs, stolen cash – and they were clambering for their money. People were tracking the returnees.”

     

    Publicly exposed and relentlessly mocked, rejected by families and with nowhere to stay, some penniless returnees, like Sheku Kamara, have little option but to flee into hiding.

     

    What future?

     

    Shortly after Isata Kabia was appointed minister of social welfare in January 2018, she discovered there was no comprehensive programme for returnees. “I was confused. I thought – what – you just send people home? And you leave them just like that?”

    2400_minister_isata_kabia.jpg

    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Former minister of social welfare, Isata Kabia: "You just send people home? And you leave them just like that?”

    She moved swiftly to set up a programme to deal with the most immediate needs, offering clothing, counselling, medical treatment, and a mediation service to help mend relations between returnees and families. Kabia ultimately wanted to establish a “safe” house at Lungi airport to accommodate returnees upon arrival, but she was replaced recently by the new administration before these plans came to fruition.

     

    The real solution, Paramount Chief Masakama Kanamanka III, political leader of the Kholifa Rowala Chiefdom in central Sierra Leone, believes, is to reduce the lure of Europe by creating opportunities at home.

     

    The government has turned its focus to stopping migration. Part deterrence and part development, its strategy includes a media campaign featuring returnees recounting their experiences, and a programme to create more job opportunities at home.  

     

    It is a welcome initiative, but one that comes too late to help the hundreds of struggling returnees. Five months after their return, the rejection by families and mockery by society is undiminished, while any means to reintegrate and move on seem out of reach.

     

    Few, if any, have been able to use the IOM money for its intended purpose to create a livelihood. Instead, the funds are often returnees’ only hope of beginning to repair relationships with families, to find accommodation, to eat, to avoid jail.   

     

    Depressed and worried, Sheku Kamara can’t sleep and barely leaves the room where he is hiding. He doesn’t see a future and is thinking of travelling again.

     

    “If I don’t find anything here, I will use IOM funds to go again,” he says. “Even if I end up going back and dying in Libya.”

     

    His family wouldn’t stop him.   

     

    “If it were up to me,” says Sheku’s mother, Jenuba Kargbo, quietly, her face etched with pain, “I would have told him to continue his travelling and not come home.”

     

     

     

    Next in Destination Europe: Evacuation

    The small village of Thal-Marmoutier in France seems like it belongs to a different world than the teeming migrant detention centers of Libya. The road to the village runs between gently rolling hills covered in grapevines and winds through small towns of half-timbered houses. A repurposed section of a Franciscan convent is home to 55 people: Thirty of them  arrived from Chad, where they had been long-time residents of refugee camps after fleeing Boko Haram violence or conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur. The other 25 – from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – were the first migrants evacuated from Libya. They had the prize so many seek: Europe. They had reached France, but many felt as if their lives were on pause, isolated in the small village with little access to transportation. “I haven’t benefited from anything yet,” said Intissar, a 35-year-old woman. “Time is just running from my life.”

    Eric Reidy reports from Thal-Marmoutier, France and Niamey, Niger on an evacuation and resettlement programme that is perhaps the best face of European migration policy – a policy that otherwise centres on curbing clandestine migration. But unless European countries speed up the pace of resettlement and offer more spots for refugees, it is unclear if it will develop into a viable pathway to safety for more than a small handful who get the luck of the draw.

    Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Libya's southern borders

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    What happens when migrants end up back where they started
    Destination Europe: Homecoming
  • More migrant disasters, less help for Yemenis, and Cameroon’s brewing war: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar:

     

    Migration: Boat disasters, offshoring, UN sanctions and more

    No shortage of news on the migration beat. In Tunisia – which, if you haven’t noticed, is fast-becoming the latest North African hotspot for migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe – the interior minister was sacked after a boat carrying an estimated 180 people capsized off the coast. At least 112 people are dead or missing in what is now the deadliest shipwreck this year in the Mediterranean. Off the Horn of Africa, another migrant boat disaster, this time on the perilous route to Yemen and the Gulf states from Somalia (covered in our recent photo feature on Djibouti), cost at least 60 lives. These tragedies hit the headlines (well, some headlines) as news emerged that EU countries, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, are in advanced talks about setting up “holding camps” in a country that is “not particularly attractive” to migrants – think Albania and Macedonia – to process asylum seekers. Such outsourcing or offshoring of EU migration policy has been floated before. French President Emmanuel Macron backtracked last year after suggesting Libya was a safe country for returns and that processing camps should be set up there, as well as in Niger and Chad. Speaking of Libya, the UN Security Council slapped unprecedented sanctions this week on six human traffickers, including the head of a regional coast guard unit. We could continue. And we will, next week in fact, when we begin to roll out a two-month series that offers a 360-degree view of the effects that European policies (and deals with African countries) have on the lives of migrants.

     

    It just got harder to help desperate Yemenis

     

    It’s also been a rough week for people requiring assistance in Yemen. On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced it had pulled 71 of its staffers out of the country, saying in a strongly worded statement that its employees “are being intimidated by parties to the conflict”, and its work has been “blocked, threatened, and directly targeted in recent weeks.” The Norwegian Refugee Council, meanwhile, says one of its buildings in Sana’a was bombed on Tuesday, despite the aid group having provided the Saudi Arabian-led coalition with its coordinates to avoid just this sort of thing. Oh, and a World Food Programme ship was attacked last weekend after dropping off its cargo at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where aid agencies continue to warn that a looming battle will have "catastrophic humanitarian impact". Whodunnit? So far we’ve seen a fair bit of finger pointing, but not much clarity.

     

    Blasts and ballots in Iraq

     

    At least 18 people were killed and 90 wounded in a Baghdad explosion on Wednesday night, although government sources differ on what caused the blast, which has been chalked up to both the detonation of an arms cache and terrorism. Either way, the deaths happened in the mostly Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc won elections last month. About that vote... On Wednesday, parliament, citing allegations of widespread fraud, ordered a manual recount of all 11 million ballots and banned members of the country’s electoral commission from travelling abroad without permission. Stay tuned for Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod’s upcoming coverage from Iraq, where all is not what it seems.

     

    First look: life inside the fight for independence in Cameroon

     

    Two Cheat Sheets ago we highlighted an urgent plea for France to get involved and help avert a full-scale civil war in Cameroon. Since then, the conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists has intensified. Dozens of armed men who claimed to be separatists were reportedly killed by the Cameroonian armed forces at the end of May after they were surrounded in their makeshift headquarters in a hotel in Menka, a small town in the troubled Northwest Region. IRIN contributor Emmanuel Freudenthal recently became the first journalist to gain access to the separatists, spending a week with them at their secret camps deep in the bush. Next week, we’ll bring you his exclusive first-hand account, offering the first proper look from inside their struggle for independence – at the fighters, their motivations, and the impact on the lives of civilians.

     

    Our weekend read:

     

    Peace deal on the line in pivotal Colombia vote

     

    On 17 June, Colombians head back to the polls for a presidential run-off that is shaping up as a referendum on the country’s divisive peace deal. Voters will choose between a former leftist guerrilla and a right-wing populist promising to overhaul a 2016 peace accord that ended to a half-century conflict between the state and FARC guerrillas. Frequent IRIN contributors Magnus Boding Hansen and Tomás Ayuso have been reporting from Colombia as election day nears. Their dispatch from Bogota, our weekend read, explores how the current favourite, Iván Duque of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, has tapped into frustrations with the 2016 peace deal. Former President Juan Manuel Santos rammed through the accord (with a few tweaks) even after it was shot down in an earlier referendum. “We want peace, but not without justice,” said one Duque supporter. The winner of the upcoming vote will take leadership of a country with pressing humanitarian concerns: more than 6.5 million people are displaced within Colombia’s borders, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have also surged in, fleeing an economy in meltdown.

     

    That outflow of Venezuelans extends far beyond Colombia, by the way. The number of Venezuelans applying for asylum in the European Union has spiked: more than 2,300 people lodged asylum claims in EU countries in April, according to recent statistics – there were only 150 applicants in February 2016. It’s the first time Venezuela has appeared among the top five countries of origin for asylum applications in the EU, joining applicants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

     

    And finally...

     

    Emergency basics: Food, shelter, and education

     

    Putting a child in front of a teacher might just save her life, just as much as food, water, or healthcare. But less than five percent of tracked emergency funding goes to education, and about two thirds of UN-led appeals for educational aid in emergencies go unfunded. That was the message this week from advocates arguing for more attention to education in emergency settings. Being in school can make a child better able to cope with stresses and risks today and make better choices in the future, according to a briefing paper issued for the donor-focused event in Geneva. While school might not be as literally "life-saving" as food or medicine, the argument for education as a category of "humanitarian" spending appears to have been won, but resources are slow to appear.

     

    The EC's humanitarian arm, ECHO is ramping up its spending (from 1 percent in 2015 to 8 percent in 2018), while Norway and Switzerland are leading advocates for the issue, too. The two donors called the event, along with UNICEF and Save the Children, on behalf of groups working together as the education "cluster". There's work to be done: in northeastern Nigeria, over 2,300 classrooms need to be built or fixed due to damage by Boko Haram extremists who are anti-"Western" education, according to local education administrator Shettima Bukar Kullima. The northeastern Nigerian state of Borno spends 26 percent of its budget on education, but Kullima said more help was needed -- for things like training 21,000 teachers how to deal with psychosocial strains among pupils. Appeals for emergency education in West Africa are particularly poorly funded, at just 22 percent, even though education in the region is a "battle zone for ideology."

    (TOP PHOTO: IOM Yemen staff assist a migrant who survived drowning. CREDIT: IOM)

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    More migrant disasters, less help for Yemenis, and Cameroon’s brewing war
  • Migrant superheroes, dodgy donors, and redesigning aid: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar:

     

    Maybe these migrants need Le Spider-Man

     

    In the past week or so, Mamoudou Gassama has scaled four storeys to save a child dangling from a Paris balcony, met with French President Emmanuel Macron, been promised citizenship tout de suite, and joined the French fire brigade. There’s no questioning the extraordinary heroism of the 22-year-old Malian, dubbed “Le Spider-Man”. But there is room for debate about the French government’s treatment of migrants who are not superheroes. France’s parliament is debating a bill that would speed up the deportation of migrants and failed asylum seekers, and on Wednesday police cleared out a makeshift camp in northeast Paris where 1,600 people had been living in squalid conditions. Perhaps a superhero will come to their rescue.

     

    Libya: 4 leaders, one peace plan?

     

    Like so many migrants headed for the Mediterranean and Europe, Mamoudou Gassama is reported to have passed through Libya on his journey to France. It’s a hellish journey, in part because there is no single government and plenty of space for people traffickers to do as they please. This week, four competing Libyan leaders met in Paris to sign a “roadmap to peace”, which is different from the UN’s peace plan (Crisis Group has a helpful briefing for the understandably bewildered). Nothing was actually signed, but elections were set for 10 December. It’s not clear yet how all this will really play out, and the bevy of press releases surrounding the meeting are likely cold comfort for 125,000 residents of Derna, in eastern Libya, who are low on food, water, and medicine as fighting intensifies around them. Look out for our Libyan coverage as part of a deep dive into the effects of EU and African migration policies.

     

    Nigeria’s lesser-known threat

    If you think the biggest threat to civilian lives in Nigeria is posed by Boko Haram, think again. The extremist group was responsible for 78 civilian deaths between January and April of this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED. Over the same period, Fulani militias killed 217 people. One of the largest ethnic groups in the Sahel region, numbering 20 to 30 million, the Fulani are semi-nomadic cattle herders who travel long distances in search of pasture. In Nigeria, drought over recent years has seen them move from their traditional areas of concentration, in the north, to central regions where they have come into conflict with farming communities. President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani and in failing health, has been “slow to respond” to what Africa Confidential describes as just “one element of a wider problem of rampant criminality [that is] either ignored or encouraged by local politicians.” Citing this report, analyst Simon Allison of the Institute for Security Studies cautions: “To lay all the blame on ethnic Fulani militias is to miss the point.” The issue is set to dominate public discourse ahead of next year’s elections. We’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, you can get up to speed with former IRIN Africa Editor Obi Anyadike's deep dive from the region last year: The deadly conflict tearing Nigeria apart (and it's not Boko Haram).

     

    Neglected: Afghans returning from Iran

     

    Aid groups and the Afghan government are fretting over Pakistan’s threats to kick out some 2.5 million refugees and undocumented Afghans. We recently reported from the Spin Boldak border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many returnees are entering the country only to find that their homes are behind active front lines and unreachable. Not a lot has been said about many more Afghans who are streaming in from Afghanistan’s neighbour to the west: Iran. Under the radar, 300,000 Afghans have returned home from Iran this year (aid groups estimate total returnees from Pakistan this year at around 15,000). Why so many from Iran? A faltering economy is one problem – Iran’s currency has plummeted by 30 percent over the last year. Aid agencies say returnees from Iran include many vulnerable people: unaccompanied children, single women, and those suddenly deported by Iranian authorities. Yet few humanitarian groups are working at the border crossing in Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province through which most returnees from Iran pass. While aid agencies offer food, medical help, and transportation to the majority of people driven out of Pakistan, barely five percent of returnees from Iran get any assistance at all.

     

    To improve the aid sector, think like Starbucks

     

    May 2018 marked two years since the UN held its first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, meant to re-shape the way aid is delivered to millions of people around the world. Now that the dust has settled, and despite many pledges and high-level agreements, the international humanitarian response system is not radically different than it was before this three-year, multi-million-dollar process. Partly as a reaction to that lack of substantial progress, in 2017 the Overseas Development Institute convened a group of humanitarian aid workers, researchers, independent observers, and others generally described as “rebels and misfits” – including IRIN’s director – to try some outside the box thinking. Applying the same, human-centered methodology Starbucks uses to improve its customer experience, the group’s members spent six months employing “design thinking” to re-imagine a humanitarian system that works better for its end users. They came up with – and in some cases prototyped – ideas as far-reaching as abolishing UN agency mandates and as simple as creating community-led response funds (read the full re-cap of the process and its outcomes here). Intrigued? A podcast series puts those ideas up against some scrutiny, and researcher Christina Bennett’s commentary for IRIN offers a practical three-step reform guide.

     

    Meet another cheat sheet – on Pacific food security

     

    Naturally, we can appreciate a handy cheat sheet here on the Cheat Sheet, so here’s one on food security in the perennially under-covered Pacific region. The “regional food security atlas”, produced by the Pacific Community and the World Food Programme, offers a swift overview on food challenges across a vast and diverse region hit by frequent natural disasters. Rapid urbanisation, a changing climate, and unpredictable disasters pose problems for food security across the Pacific Islands. In the last year alone, Pacific countries were hit by tropical cyclones, drought, and severe floodingmultiple times in some cases. In Papua New Guinea’s highlands region, there are worries over long-term food security after a February earthquake wiped out the home gardens that many relied on to feed their families. Aid groups estimate that more than 150,000 people will continue to need food assistance.

     

    Our weekend read:

     

    Ebola: Fear, suspicion, and anger along Congo’s river of worry

     

    Much of the media attention on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has focused on the vaccination campaign. This is not wrong. Not only could the first major deployment of this experimental vaccine prove a major life-saver right now in Congo and help prevent a major epidemic in the wider region, but it could also hold the key to preventing and containing Ebola outbreaks in the future. But as the World Health Organisation’s head of emergency response, Peter Salama, admitted: it only takes one infected person to travel down the Congo River to Kinshasa to greatly increase the catastrophic potential of this current crisis. So take a bit of time this weekend to read about what IRIN journalist Issa Sikiti da Silva found when he visited the port city of Mbandaka (where three people have died from the virus). He found confusion and no small amount of anger over monitoring – or lack of it – at embarkation points along the river. What people can’t understand is: if the risks are the same, why is the airport screened but not the busy river traffic? The answer probably lies in the impossibility of screening hundreds, if not thousands, of small embarkation points that dot the length of the Congo. The strategy to contain this outbreak appears to be based on tracing people who have come into contact with confirmed Ebola cases and vaccinating all those who’ve been near infected parties, not on monitoring the river for infected passengers who might have escaped the net. We sure hope it works.

     

    And finally:

     

    TripAdvisor for donors?

     

    Which donors and donor countries are the best to work with? A new survey ranks the helpfulness and influence of donors, according to their clients – the developing country officials who have to deal with them. The Geneva-based vaccine provider, GAVI, heads the list of the most helpful, followed by the International Monetary Fund, UNICEF, and the World Bank. In terms of influence, the IMF comes top, while China and India show the fastest rise since 2014, according to the study from the College of William & Mary, a US university. Education is the most important sector for progress, according to the poll, which canvassed opinion among 3,468 developing country officials and local development workers. Given a chance to rank 16 sustainable development goals, schooling came out top in most regions, while climate change and preserving the oceans tended to come last. It's an unusual take on the development marketplace – a sort of TripAdvisor for donor countries.

     

    Read the full report: “Listening to Leaders” from the AidData group.

     

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    Migrant superheroes, dodgy donors, and redesigning aid
  • Niger sends Sudanese refugees back to Libya

    Niger has deported at least 132 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers back to Libya, drawing criticism that it is flouting international law by sending them back to dangerous and inhumane conditions from which they recently escaped.

     

    The deportation, the first of asylum seekers from Niger’s migrant hub of Agadez, was confirmed by a high-ranking UN refugee agency (UNHCR) official, and later by an informed source in the Nigerien interior ministry who insisted those sent back were “criminals” fighting for militias in southern Libya. UNHCR put the number at 135, but the interior ministry said three people had escaped.

     

    UNHCR said those deported were part of a group of around 160 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers arrested in Agadez on 2 May. The majority fled to Niger to escape harsh conditions and treatment in Libya and were receiving assistance from UNHCR.

    sudanese_refugees_waiting_to_be_loaded_into_trucks_to_be_deported_to_libya_rotate.jpg

    Sudanese refugees waiting to be loaded into trucks to be deported to Libya.

    The Sudanese men were deported across the land border into the south of Libya on Wednesday or Thursday, and their current whereabouts are unknown, according to the UNHCR official. Prior to the deportation, UNHCR secured the release of women and children, and several other people escaped.

    One of those arrested on 2 May was a 58-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker whom IRIN met during a visit to Agadez in March. His current whereabouts are unknown, but communicating from prison before the deportation via text message, the man, who asked for his identity to be withheld due to the ongoing risks, said those arrested were held for several days without food.

     

    On 7 May, several large trucks entered the prison. When the Sudanese resisted orders to board the trucks, the police beat them, according to people who escaped who communicated with IRIN via text message. Three men were taken to the hospital due to the severity of their injuries.

     

    The trucks departed in the direction of Madama, a desert outpost close to the Libyan border and some 900 kilometres, or two to three days of gruelling travel, from Agadez.

     

    On 9 May, IRIN received confirmation from the senior UNHCR official that the 135 Sudanese who were in the trucks had been deported to Libya.

     

    “We deported a group of criminals who had been part of the militias fighting in southern Libya for security reasons,” the Niger interior ministry source told IRIN. “They had no status as political or humanitarian refugees.”

    man_who_managed_to_run_away_after_being_beaten_by_police_while_trucks_were_being_loaded_for_deportation.jpg

    Man who managed to run away after being beaten by police while trucks were being loaded for deportation

    Human rights advocates expressed alarm at what they said was a violation of non-refoulement, the international law that prohibits states from sending refugees and asylum seekers back to countries where they may be in harm’s way.

     

    The deportations are seen as setting a worrying precedent for hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who are increasingly trapped in Libya with no route of exit to safety.

     

    “It is inhuman and unlawful to send migrants and refugees back to Libya, where they face shocking levels of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour,” Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia, said in an email.

     

    “This violates the absolute prohibition under international law… against sending people to a place where they face a serious risk of threats to their lives and freedoms.”

     

    Migrant U-turn

    Agadez is a major transit hub for migrants travelling from West Africa to Libya en route to Europe. But since last December, more than 1,700 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers have fled from Libya to Niger, according to the latest UNHCR figures. This is a significant reversal of the trend of people travelling north from east and west Africa to the Libyan coast, to cross the sea and seek protection in Europe.

     

    Since 2013, more than 600,000 asylum seekers and migrants have taken that route to Italy. The number of arrivals has decreased significantly since mid-July, when the Italian government allegedly co-opted Libyan militias to fight people smuggling.

     

    The European Union and Italy have also been providing funding, training, and equipment to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has stepped up efforts to intercept boats carrying refugees and migrants across the sea.

     

    Since the beginning of 2017, the Libyan Coast Guard says it has returned almost 19,000 people to Libya. A recent lawsuit filed with the European Court of Human Rights alleges that these people were returned against their will and subjected to inhumane treatment, including beatings, rape, and torture.

     

    Clandestine migration is criminalised in Libya, and people who enter the country illegally are routinely detained for indefinite periods and suffer abuse from authorities and smugglers.

     

    During a week-long visit by IRIN to Agadez in March, Sudanese refugees said they had fled dismal conditions in Libya. “People were being imprisoned and killed; there was looting; when someone works, they don’t get paid their salary,” said IRIN’s 58-year-old Sudanese contact, who is from the Darfur region of Sudan.

     

    “Anywhere [UNHCR] says I can go, I’ll go – except for Libya or Sudan.”



    The majority of the Sudanese who have come to Agadez are from Darfur, which has been embroiled in conflict since 2003. Many had previously been registered with the UNHCR in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Sudan, or in refugee camps in Chad. They travelled to Libya in recent years in search of economic opportunity, or with the intention of crossing the sea to Europe, but got caught in the lawlessness and violence that has characterised the country since the 2011 revolution.

     

    Many of the Sudanese “fell prey to human traffickers and ended up in slavery situations – being forced to work, beaten, not paid,” explained Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean.

     

    As the route from Libya to Europe was constricted, Sudanese in Libya had few options of where to go. “Is there any corridor out of southern Libya that can offer… safety? No other corridor than Niger,” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s head of office in Niger.

     

    Rising tensions in Agadez

     

    News reports have suggested that the presence in Niger of a UNHCR programme evacuating asylum seekers from Libyan detention centres and resettling them to Europe has attracted the Sudanese to Agadez. But it is still unclear if, and to what extent, the programme is acting as a pull factor.

     

    “I heard that in Niger there are laws and security,” the 58-year-old Sudanese man told IRIN in March about his decision to come to Agadez. Other Sudanese interviewed then said that they had heard about the presence of UNHCR and came with the hope of receiving support they had not received elsewhere. No one IRIN spoke to, even when asked directly, specifically mentioned the resettlement programme as a factor in their decision.

     

    The Nigerien government has been wary of the presence of the Sudanese since they began to arrive in December, and has characterised many of them as mercenaries in Libyan militias.

     

    “We understood that there was a real danger because you have some people who were fighters in [the] south of Libya,” Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister, told IRIN in March. “They came here because now they expect to go to Europe.”

     

    The arrests on 2 May were precipitated by strained relations between the local community in Agadez and the Sudanese, according to news reports and the UNHCR source.

     

    Nigeriens in the neighbourhood where the Sudanese were being housed by UNHCR expressed frustration over public sanitation issues and fear over the proximity of Sudanese men to Nigerien women and girls.

     

    UNHCR has entered mediations with local authorities and residents to reduce tensions and prevent further deportations.

     

    Several Sudanese still in Agadez who remain in contact with IRIN via phone and text message say people there are afraid they will also be arrested and deported to Libya or back to Sudan.

     

    When IRIN met the 58-year-old Sudanese man in March, he said he was hoping to find somewhere to stay where he wouldn’t have to face the same problems and difficulties he endured in Darfur and Libya. “Anywhere [UNHCR] says I can go, I’ll go – except for Libya or Sudan,” he said.

    (Photos and video supplied by Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees in Niger)

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    The unprecedented deportation comes after more than 1,700 people fled the other way since December
    Niger sends Sudanese refugees back to Libya
  • Prison or deportation: The impossible choice for asylum seekers in Israel

    Just two months from now, the Israeli government says it will begin indefinitely imprisoning asylum seekers who refuse deportation. IRIN Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod explores what this means for the tens of thousands of people now facing an uncertain future.

     

    After escaping torture in Sudan, after walking 11 hours through the Egyptian desert, and after handing almost all his money to men with guns who blocked his way, Adam slipped through an opening in a border fence and laid down on the sand.

     

    The respite didn’t last long.

     

    The 24-year-old told every Israeli official he met – first soldiers, then officials at a detention centre – that he was seeking safe haven.

     

    It didn’t go down well, as Adam recounts calmly from his Tel Aviv kitchen table.

     

    “I told them, ‘I’m a refugee’. They said, ‘we don’t have a place for refugees here’.”

     

    “I asked for the UN… They said, ‘here in Israel we don’t have the UN’.”

     

    “I said, ‘so let me go back’. They said, ‘no’.”

     

    Little did he know it would go so badly that four years later he would be labelled an infiltrator and that, as an unmarried, childless male with no official refugee status, he would be high on the list for deportation.

     

    Adam, who told IRIN he was tortured in prison in Sudan for refusing to fight in the military, has fallen foul of a new Israeli government plan to rid the country of the 38,000 African asylum seekers inside its borders.

     

    A new policy

    The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Tel Aviv has been overrun by “illegal infiltrators” who, it maintains, are largely responsible for driving up poverty and crime in working class southern parts of the city.

     

    Starting the first of April, the government says it will give the asylum seekers – more than 90 percent are from Sudan and Eritrea – the choice between prison and “voluntary” deportation. Those who agree to leave will be given $3,500 (this sum will decrease after 1 April) and reportedly then be sent to Rwanda or Uganda, although both governments have denied entering into agreements with Israel.

     

    Asylum seekers began making the trek to Israel in the mid-2000s. Between then and 2014, when the country fortified its border with Egypt, Israel’s policy towards new arrivals has changed often.

    It gave them visas – renewable every few months – that read, “this permit is not a work permit”, but opted not to fine employers who hire them. It sent men to indefinite detention in a series of centres, until the high court limited this to a year in 2015. It has also paid asylum seekers to leave the country – reportedly via secret deals with Rwanda and Uganda (believed to be the destinations in this latest push).

    Forced deportations haven’t been officially announced, but at least one of Netanyahu’s ministers has said they’re on the table.

    When he announced the new policy at a January cabinet meeting, Netanyahu spoke of the “plight of the long-time residents” and said his new deportation plan was aimed at, “restoring quiet – the sense of personal security and law and order – to the residents of south Tel Aviv, and also those of many other neighbourhoods”.

    Welcome to the medina

    South Tel Aviv has become a hive of controversy – and a useful rhetorical tool for politicians – because the government and some locals (but not all) blame poverty and deteriorating conditions on the influx of African asylum seekers, even though one official report suggests state neglect was largely to blame.

    Most did not choose this city anyway. With a dark sense of humour, and a bit of profanity, Adam explains what his one-way ticket to the Central Bus Station in the south of Tel Aviv was like.

    201205170928400452_2.jpg

    Mya Guarnieri/IRIN
    African asylum seekers sleep in a Tel Aviv park in 2012

    After being apprehended at the border – an incident that involved running from a searchlight, losing his shoes, and an act of kindness when a soldier gave him his own boots – Adam was told he couldn’t claim status as a refugee but could stay in Israel and work a while, in what officials kept calling the “medina”, city in Arabic.

     

    He didn’t speak much of that language, but after weeks in detention he heard his name called a few times: “Adam-medina”, “Adam-medina”. Loaded onto a bus with other African asylum seekers, he eventually figured out what medina meant and that he was going to a city that turned out to be Tel Aviv.

     

    Unlike some of his fellow passengers, he already feared his prospects were bleak. “We didn’t speak Hebrew; we didn’t have any experience,” he remembers. “People were so happy getting on the bus.”

    “I said to them, ‘Why are you happy? This medina is going to be messed up [in more colourful language]. It’s not going to be easy’.”

    Adam took one look at Tel Aviv, saw men sleeping rough in a park, and got on the first bus out of there. But eventually he came back and found work as an electrician.

    Over time, many asylum seekers found jobs and places to stay near the bus station in south Tel Aviv. Nowadays, shop signs in Tigriniya (the language spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia] compete for space in the area alongside those in Hebrew; barbershop and salons have sprung up to cater to a black clientele; coffee shops display posters of Eritrean musicians.

    Teklit Michael, a 29-year-old Eritrean activist (and middle-distance runner) who fled his country in 2007, says he came to Israel “to be safe from detention, torture, imprisonment”, but never truly felt at home.

    He recounts episodes of discrimination: “When you get on the bus and no one wants to sit next to you… when you cook at a restaurant and people say, ‘I don’t want to… eat what he made’.”

    Refugee status

    As Adam learnt upon arrival in 2013, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, doesn’t process asylum claims in Israel. The government has handled refugee status determination since 2009, and until 2013 it was almost impossible for Eritreans and Sudanese to even submit applications.

    When applying for refugee status did become an option, it was still extremely difficult and bureaucratic.

    “I thought, if you can apply you can at least prove that you tried,” said Anwar Suliman, a Sudanese asylum seeker who IRIN profiled in this 2017 film and interviewed again for this feature.

    He, like Teklit and many others, is still waiting for an answer.

    Adam never filled out the refugee status determination form – what everyone calls the RSD.

    Why? “They told me in the beginning they had no place for me.”

    Plus, he says he knew a lot of people who filled out the form and it amounted to nothing.

    The statistics bear this out – as of mid-2017, more than 12,200 people had filed asylum claims; more than 7,400 had received no reply. Only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese – 11 people total – have been granted refugee status since 2009, even though Israel is a signatory to the refugee convention. One more Eritrean man is said to have been granted status this week, although IRIN could not independently confirm the report.

    Fighting back

    Despite utter mistrust in the system and frustration over the miniscule recognition rate, those RSDs have suddenly begun to feel like some sort of protection.

    That’s because it is childless men who never applied or were rejected who Israel says it will send away first, although later phases of the policy could see others deported.

    IRIN visited Anwar at his home near another central bus station, but not in Tel Aviv – after detention in a desert centre called Holot he was told not to return to the city.

    He has been the face – and name – of lawsuits; he has encouraged his fellow activists to speak out; and he has learned Hebrew and English.

    Now, he says, “we’ve struggled enough. We did everything by the law; we protested; we spoke to the international media, the local media; we did everything.”

     

    “I think now is the time for the Israeli citizens’ to [join us in the] struggle.”

     

    Some have heeded his call.

    There have been protests (including some by residents of south Tel Aviv) against the proposed deportations, promises by rabbis to hide asylum seekers (should it come to that), and a letter from a group of pilots at Israel’s national airline, El Al, saying they would refuse to fly asylum seekers if they were forcibly deported.

    Condemnation from human rights organisations and international Jewish groups perhaps led Rwandan President Paul Kagame, after a recent meeting with Netanyahu, to issue a statement saying he “would only accept a process that fully complies with international law”.

     

    At local NGOs that serve the asylum seeker community, activists say they will do everything they can to put a stop to the new policy. Dror Sadot of the Tel Aviv based NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants told IRIN that there is “a lot of panic” about the possible deportations, and that “now is our time to do everything we can”.

     

    Adi Drori-Avraham, spokeswoman for ASSAF – which provides psychosocial support for asylum seekers who are especially vulnerable (torture victims, single mothers) – says her organisation will keep doing what it has always done.

     

    “We had an Eritrean woman, who is a single woman with three kids, sitting on a chair in her office, sobbing with her head between her hands, asking, ‘Are we going to have to hide?’ It’s a horrible situation, basically the stuff of nightmares.”

     

    Deported to what?

     

    In a recent cabinet meeting, Netanyahu reportedly called the notion that Rwanda is unsafe “a joke”.

     

    But asylum seekers who have taken Israel’s “voluntary” flights to Rwanda in the past have told researchers they arrived to find no support, only a night or two of hotel accommodation, and no legal right to remain there.

     

    With $3,500 in their pockets, they were easy targets for robbery and trafficking to other countries.

    AFP_Israel_deportation_protest_2

    Jack Guez/AFP
    Asylum seekers protest Israel's deportation plan outside the Rwandan embassy

    They felt they had little choice but to leave Rwanda and chance it through dangerous countries like Libya, and, according to UNHCR, “along they way they suffered abuse, torture, and extortion”.

     

    These reports back up stories every asylum seeker IRIN spoke to in Tel Aviv had heard (from friends or friends of friends who took Israel up on the offer of cash), and everyone had also seen the video of three Eritrean refugees who were voluntarily sent to Rwanda, attempted to make it to Libya, and were killed by so-called Islamic State.

     

    “[Rwanda and Uganda] are not our countries… nobody wants to go there,” says Teklit. “What is waiting for them is human trafficking to other countries, torture, other horrible things.”

     

    Teklit says he can only describe how he feels as “desperate”, but calmly says he will choose prison if forced and must remain composed because “the good guys are always the winners, not the bad guys”.

     

    Anwar feels the same: “100 percent I will go to prison. This is a crazy decision [to have to make]. But it’s the best I have.”

     

    Adam has a different take. He knows the risks – he knows he’ll be a sitting duck – but he reckons if he is deported it could help those still in Israel.  If he’s kicked out of a place “that doesn’t feel like your home… maybe people will start paying attention… one day the people here will feel something.”

     

    Changing hearts and minds

    On a recent Friday night at the Eritrean women’s centre in south Tel Aviv where Teklit works – women and children are celebrating a move to new offices with a coffee ceremony and snacks.

    In one corner is an odd-looking pile of plastic heads with hair, which made more sense when Teklit explains that hairdressing, along with cleaning, is one of the few avenues of employment for women from Eritrea.

    Behind the chitchat and selfies, in another room, a group of Eritrean and Ethiopian asylum seekers quietly fills out RSDs – with the help of volunteers, as the forms can only be filled out in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

    The Israeli government says this won’t make a difference, and insists that the deportation exemption only applies to those who had open applications as of the first of this year.

    So why are they still giving it a shot? “Maybe it makes them feel better,” offers one volunteer.

    Because of the recent move, the centre’s walls are nearly bare, but for a painting of one black hand and one white, linked together. Printed beneath, in Hebrew and English: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Asylum seekers protest outside the Rwandan embassy in Hertzliya, Israel. Jack Guez/AFP)

    as/ag

    Prison or deportation: The impossible choice for asylum seekers in Israel
  • Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018

    From the Rohingya to South Sudan, hurricanes to famine, 2017 was full of disasters and crises. But 2018 is shaping up to be even worse. Here’s why.

    The UN has appealed for record levels of funding to help those whose lives have been torn apart, but the gap between the funding needs and the funding available continues to grow.

    And what makes the outlook especially bad for 2018 is that the political will needed to resolve conflicts, welcome refugees, and address climate change also appears to be waning. What a difference a year, a new US president, and a German election make.

    Here’s our insider take on 10 crises that will shape the humanitarian agenda in 2018 (See 2017’s list here):

    IRIN’s editors sketch out the gloomy-looking horizon for next year
    Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018
    Syria’s sieges and displacement
    Outskirts of Aleppo. Kids playing with burnt chairs.

    As Syria heads towards seven years of war and Western governments quietly drop their demands for political transition, it has become increasingly clear that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power, at least in some capacity.

     

    But that doesn’t mean the violence or suffering is over: pockets of resistance are still being starved into submission and being denied aid – nearly three million Syrians still live in areas the UN defines as besieged or “hard to reach” (see: eastern Ghouta right now), while chemical weapons are deployed to horrifying effect.

     

    There’s talk of reconstruction where the fighting has fizzled out, be it in areas brought under the government’s control or in cities like Raqqa, which is now controlled by Kurdish forces but has a mixed population that is beginning to come home, to utter destruction.

     

    Investors are lining up for a slice of the rebuilding pie. But an average of 6,550 Syrians were displaced by violence each day in 2017. So what of the 6.1 million and counting displaced inside Syria – many sheltering in tents or unfinished buildings and facing another long winter – not to mention the 5.5 million refugees abroad? Will they have a say in how Syria is rebuilt? With reconstruction already a major bone of contention in peace talks and the EU planning to get involved in 2018, how this plays out is important and worth watching.

    Congo unravels

    You know the situation is bad when people start fleeing their homes, and it doesn’t get much worse than the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Here, violence in its eastern provinces has triggered the world’s worst displacement crisis – for a second year in a row. More than 1.7 million people abandoned their farms and villages this year, on top of 922,000 in 2016. The provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Kasai, and Tanganyika are the worst affected and the epicentres of unrest in the country.

     

    New alliances of armed groups have emerged to take on a demoralised government army and challenge President Joseph Kabila in distant Kinshasa. He refused to step down and hold elections in 2016 when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit expired – and the political ambition of some of these groups is to topple him. These rebellions are a new addition to the regular lawlessness of armed groups and conflict entrepreneurs that have stalked the region for years. It is a confusing cast of characters, in which the army also plays a freelance role and, as IRIN reported this month, as an instigator of some of the rights abuses that are forcing civilians to flee.

     

    As we enter 2018, more than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance and protection – that’s close to six million more people than at the start of 2017. Over three million people are severely food insecure in the Kasai region alone, their villages and fields looted. Aid is only slowly trickling in. The $812 million appeal for Congo is less than 50 percent funded. That lack of international commitment represents the single largest impediment to the humanitarian response.

    Yemen slips further towards famine

    If we repeat the words “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” so often that they starting to lose gravity, here are a few numbers that might help hammer home just how grim life has become after more than two and a half years of war in Yemen, a country of more than 29 million: 8.4 million people are on the verge of starvation; 400,000 children have severe acute malnutrition (that’s as bad as it gets), and more than 5,500 civilians have been killed.

     

    Last January, we warned Yemen was at serious risk of sliding into famine. That now seems a near-certainty and may be unfolding right now, with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition continuing to restrict or at least delay commercial imports of food and fuel (among other goods), causing prices to shoot up and meaning those on the margin no longer have enough cash to buy the bare necessities.

     

    And what of that cholera epidemic that killed 2,226 and infected nearly a million since April before receding? Nobody has been vaccinated, fuel shortages mean less clean water, and the rainy season is coming. All of this combines to create a real risk that the disease will make a comeback. Diphtheria is on the rise, too. None of this happens in a vacuum: without proper nutrition, Yemenis are increasingly susceptible to illness.

    South Sudan – it could get even worse

    A much-anticipated ceasefire in South Sudan didn’t last long.

    It came into effect at midnight on Christmas Eve, and a few hours later government and rebel forces were fighting around the northern town of Koch in Unity State. The violence hasn’t derailed the peace talks underway in Addis Ababa, but it does point to how difficult it will be for the internationally-backed diplomatic process to shape events on the ground.

    The ceasefire is between President Salva Kiir and several rebel groups, but confidence is low that negotiations can bring a quick and decisive end to a war entering its fifth year.

    South Sudan has fragmented, with a host of ethnic militias emerging with shifting loyalties. The various members of this so-called “gun class” all want a seat at the table, in the belief that any future agreement will be based on a power-sharing deal and a division of the country’s resources along the lines of the last failed settlement.

    The international community lacks leverage and neighbouring countries don’t have the unity of purpose necessary to achieve a broad-based and sustainable peace agreement.

    What that means is that more refugees – on top of an existing two million – will continue to pour across the country’s borders as the fighting season resumes.

    It also means some seven million people inside the country – almost two thirds of the remaining population – will still need humanitarian assistance; hunger will also continue to threaten millions as a result of the war, displacement, and collapse of the rural economy. And yes, there will be the threat of renewed famine.

    One final ingredient in the brew of despair is that the humanitarian community’s access to those in need will be constrained by both the prevailing insecurity and the government’s cynical taxation of aid operations.

    CAR – where humanitarians fear to tread
    A family from Boeing pack up their belongings and prepare to leave M'Poko

    There are many reasons why Central African Republic was officially the unhappiest country in the world in 2017.

    You can start with the 50 percent increase in the number of displaced, bringing the total to 633,000 people. Then there are the more than two million hungry people, and the half a million who have figured it’s just too hard to stay and have left for neighbouring countries.

    It’s not much fun being an aid worker either. In November another humanitarian worker was killed in the north of the country, bringing to 14 the number to have died this year. The level of violence has forced aid agencies to repeatedly suspend operations as their personnel, convoys, and bases are deliberately targeted.

    Behind the insecurity is a four-year conflict between competing armed groups that neither a weak government nor an under-staffed UN peacekeeping mission can contain. It pits mainly Muslim ex-Séléka rebels against Christian anti-Balaka, but some of the worst fighting has its roots in the splintering of the Séléka coalition and a feud between former allies.

    The violence across the country boils down to the lucrative control of natural resources and the taxes the groups raise from checkpoints. Such is the insecurity that the government’s writ doesn’t even cover all of the capital, Bangui.

    Rohingya refugees in limbo; forgotten conflicts simmer elsewhere in Myanmar

    After a catastrophic year in which more than 655,000 people were driven out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, it’s hard to imagine 2018 could go any worse for the Rohingya minority.

    But, with nearly a million Rohingya refugees crowded into overloaded settlements in southern Bangladesh, the new year brings a host of new questions.

    The sudden exodus of refugees captured the world’s attention, but as the crisis shifts from emergency response to long-term survival, will the focus – and funding – keep pace with the pressing needs on the ground? Can the fragile settlements withstand a significant storm, or even the seasonal monsoon rains that will fall in a few short months? And will the Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities try to make good on a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees despite warnings from any number of aid groups, rights monitors, and UN agencies, and a troubling history of less-than-voluntary returns?

     

     

    While Rakhine State smoulders, long-simmering conflicts continue to fly under the radar elsewhere in Myanmar. Clashes between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups in the country’s north have escalated, largely out of the public spotlight. In northern Kachin and Shan states, some 100,000 people have been uprooted since 2011, when a government ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army collapsed. Roughly 40 percent of these people live in areas outside government control. But Myanmar has also put limits on aid access to areas even under its authority, mirroring the more publicised restrictions in place in Rakhine. Buried somewhere is Myanmar’s long-stalled peace process involving myriad ethnic armed groups operating across the country. A new round of talks is set for later in January. But with only a handful of armed groups on board with a tenuous ceasefire agreement and other key players excluded entirely, a politically negotiated peace remains elusive.

    Afghans return to flaring conflict

    Afghanistan begins 2018 facing another volatile year.

    Conflict has displaced more than one million Afghans over the last two years. But added to this are the ever-growing numbers of Afghans returning from (or rather kicked out of) Europe and neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran. They’re coming back to a country that the UN in August concluded was no longer in “post-conflict” mode but in active conflict once again, one where a resurgent Taliban and emboldened Islamic State-aligned militants vie for control as the government’s grasp weakens.

     

    The problem can be summarised in one ominous chart, which shows US military estimates that the Afghan government has influence in less than 57 percent of the country’s districts:

     

    The raging conflict has had disastrous impacts on Afghan civilians. Last year saw civilian casualties soar to near record-high levels, and an escalating number of people were killed in attacks targeting places of worship – something the UN has called a “disturbing” new element to the violence. Healthcare continues to come under siege, with skirmishes severing access to hospitals and clinics, and aid workers caught in the crossfire.

     

    The next 12 months could prove an even greater challenge. January is the start of Afghanistan’s food “lean season”, which will hit those already uprooted by conflict particularly hard. It’s now begrudgingly accepted that a viable peace settlement must include the Taliban – a once unthinkable suggestion – but there has been “no meaningful progress”. With parliamentary elections scheduled for July 2018, the battle for control of Afghanistan will continue on multiple fronts as the snows melt and the fighting resumes in earnest.

    Venezuelan exodus to strain neighbours

    The descent of Venezuela from oil-rich powerhouse to economic basketcase has been well chronicled.

    Less thoroughly reported, partly due to media restrictions under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Hugo Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Máduro, has been the extent of the humanitarian crisis. Shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation have led to growing reports of severe childhood malnutrition in addition to a general healthcare crisis, and to more than a million Venezuelans fleeing the country.

     

    If 2017 was the year when the scale of crisis within Venezuela began to reveal itself, 2018 is set to be when the full effects are felt beyond its borders. The political situation underpinning this crisis is only likely to worsen. Elections, slated for December 2018, are expected to be brought forward and foisted upon a weary, hungry, and increasingly desperate electorate that is sharply divided. Unrest or government crackdowns will only send more Venezuelans pouring over the border. There are already signs that regional hospitality is wearing thin and of emergency camps being prepared. The International Monetary Fund predicted that Venezuela’s triple-digit inflation could soar to more than 2,300 percent in 2018. As the year closed out, opposition parties were barred from the election, a main opposition leader was banned from political activity for 15 years, and violent pro-democracy protests rocked the capital, Caracas. None of this augurs well.

    Libya: Africa’s giant holding cell

    An AU-EU summit at the end of 2017 seemed to offer a glimmer of hope for the 700,000 to one million migrants stuck in the nightmare that is Libya.

    It produced a plan to repatriate those who want it, and to move others from squalid detention centres into better conditions.

     

    Some flights home did subsequently take off, and a first group (of 162 refugees and migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen) was even evacuated by the UN on 22 December from Libya to Italy. But we’ve yet to see how this scheme will play out, and there are some serious obstacles. Many migrants have nowhere safe to return to, and it’s not clear how a UN-backed government that controls little in the way of territory or popular support will manage to move and protect migrants in a country with multiple governments, militias, and tribes.

     

    That the meeting even got press (in large part thanks to a CNN film of what appeared to be a slave auctions) in an oft-ignored country is a sign of how little the world cares about the mostly sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya, for whom kidnapping, extortion, and rape have become the norm.

     

    European policy has largely focused on keeping migrants from boarding boats in the Mediterranean or reaching their shores – creating a situation that is bad enough for Libyans and shockingly worse for Africans. At the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron mooted a military and police initiative inside Libya, plus UN sanctions for people-smugglers. How this could actually work is anyone’s guess, and it seems unlikely to get at the source of many migrants’ woes: the lack of legal avenues to get out of the desperate situations that brought them to Libya’s hell in the first place.

    A year of turmoil in Cameroon

    It’s taken just over a year for political agitation in Cameroon’s anglophone region to turn into armed opposition against the government of President Paul Biya.

    Separatism was only a fringe idea until the government cracked down hard on protesters demanding greater representation for the neglected minority region. Now, government soldiers are being killed, Biya is promising all-out war, and thousands of refugees are fleeing into neighbouring Nigeria.

    Anglophone Cameroon is becoming radicalised. Refugees recounting experiences of killings by the security forces talk of revenge, and commentators worry that the opportunity for negotiations with more moderate anglophone leaders – those pursuing a policy of civil disobedience and diplomatic pressure on Yaoundé – may be rapidly shrinking.

    If the government believes there is a military solution to the activists’ demands for an independent “Ambazonia”, made up of the two anglophone regions of western Cameroon, they may well be mistaken. Where the separatists’ training camps are being established, next to the Nigerian border, is a remote and heavily forested zone – ideal for guerrilla warfare.

    Biya, 85 in February and in power for the past 35 years, is standing in elections once again in 2018. The “anglophone crisis” and the potential of an even larger refugee exodus will not only leave him politically damaged but could be regionally destabalising, especially as Nigeria faces its own separatist challenge.

    il-oa-as/ag

  • Libya’s downward spiral to shortages, militia power, and migrant abuse

    Social media has become a bush telegraph in the Libyan capital Tripoli, used by anxious citizens to warn each other of militia violence and how to get around the endless shortages as the economy crumbles.

     

    Each day thousands of citizens send each other tips, with the phrase “red light” indicating a district or intersection where militias are fighting, or capturing people for ransom. Residents have formed Facebook groups to swap tips on where to find the few petrol stations that have supplies or banks with currency, or how to buy medicines when hospitals’ stocks are exhausted.

     

    One post from early December shows photos taken by mobile phone of burning cars and columns of smoke, with an anonymous poster writing: “In Ain Zara district, car on fire, for your information this is the fourth car in a brief time, please be careful and take precautions.”

     

    “On Facebook you’ll find people recommending where you can find petrol, shops that use credit cards,” said one Facebook user from Tripoli, at her request anonymous. “The electricity board use it to tell people how many hours power cuts will last.”

     

    Seven years after its “Arab Spring” revolution that toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi, and three years into its civil war, that social media is the only way to find necessities is one sign that the wheels have come off in Libya. Economic collapse and militia violence has left much of the country ungoverned, allowing human trafficking and horrendous treatment of migrants to go unchecked. Amidst this chaos, a recent CNN report that migrants are being sold as slaves was shocking, but not a surprise.

     

    Water shortages and power cuts

     

    Libya’s most acute shortages are water. In late November, a militia shut off valves south of Tripoli to the Great Man-Made River, an irrigation pipe that pumps water to the city from huge underground reservoirs in the Sahara. Without rivers or desalination plants, the situation in the capital quickly grew dire, with residents scouring shops for water bottles and helping each other to draw water from ancient wells.

     

    Several groups drilled through pavements to get to groundwater, using generators to pump it up and bottle it on the spot. UNICEF warned on 3 December that locals were resorting to “potentially unsafe or contaminated water, increasing the risk of an outbreak of waterborne diseases.”

    Libya-Italy MSF sea rescues

    Kevin McElvaney/MSF
    Migrants off the coast of Libya in December 2016

    Libya has three rival governments, but this militia, based in southwest Libya, is not affiliated with any of them. It appears that cutting the water supply was a demand for the release of its leader, held by a rival militia in Tripoli. After five days, the militia relented and water returned to the city’s taps, although no details were made public on whether its leader had been set free.

     

    Power cuts too are frequent, some lasting many days, particularly in the summer when air conditioning sees the power system short out. Some of the outages are the result of fuel oil being taken by militias, with the National Oil Corporation saying much of Libya’s imported petrol is re-exported by militias who smuggle it to Europe. But Libya’s power stations were worn out before the revolution, and shortages of equipment and spare parts have left the country lacking 37 percent of the necessary generating power.

     

    Hospitals and cash running low

     

    Hospitals are also in a bad way, with the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli unable or unwilling to pay for more help. “Hospitals have no medicines or supplies, people have to take them with them for operations, the health service has collapsed!” one Tripoli resident recently tweeted.

     

    In July, the World Health Organization reported that only four of 80 hospitals in the country are working even at 75 percent capacity, and a further 17 had closed, along with one in five primary healthcare facilities. It blamed “fragmented governance, limited financial resources, deficient human resources, acute shortage of lifesaving medicines and basic equipment, a debilitated primary healthcare network, and neglected health services.”

     

    Complicating the need to find scarce medicines, petrol, or water bottles, money to buy these basics is also in short supply. Few banks have cash, and those that do typically restrict Libyans to withdrawals of 300 Libyan Dinars (around $200) a day. Officials blame the shortages on cash hoarding because businesses and individuals no longer put money in banks, fearing they’ll be unable to get it out again. Meanwhile, sagging confidence in the national currency has seen the dinar nudge 10 to the American dollar on the black market, seven times the official exchange rate.

     

    The bottom rung

     

    Perhaps the worst-off are two groups: migrants seeking work or a boat to Europe (they often find themselves trafficked, abused, or in detention centres with horrific conditions), and the approximately 200,000 internally displaced who have had to flee their homes inside Libya; some because their tribes or groups have been evicted from fighting zones, others because their homes are in ruins after more than three years of civil war. 

     

    In eastern Libya, police and army affiliated with a parliament based in Tobruk have begun to take control, but in Tripoli and much of the west of the country the militias still rule supreme. As the economy sinks, they indulge in criminality, be it fuel smuggling, people smuggling or kidnapping. Abductions are common in Tripoli, with militias grabbing individuals off the street to “sell” them back to their families.

     

    The UN Panel of Experts on Libya said in a June 2017 report that it had received “numerous reports of kidnappings and arbitrary detentions used by armed groups for political or material benefit. Politicians, activists, bank employees and journalists are frequent targets.”

     

    Migrants are regularly extorted for ransom, subject to sexual abuse, and – it now seems – some are sold as slaves.

     

    Help on the way?

     

    The international community may finally be stepping in to alleviate some of the suffering, at least for migrants. Following an EU-African Union meeting in late November, there’s a new plan for the International Organiszation for Migration to evacuate migrants who want to return home and move them from overcrowded detention camps. Although, how and if this will work remains to be seen.

     

    Politically, the UN has taken the lead in trying to end the civil war, focusing on reforming the government it backs in Tripoli, the GNA, so it can become a true unity government.

     

    A UN-chaired commission formed the GNA two years ago, appointing a nine-strong presidential council, but it has struggled to find support and its lack of popularity means it has been unable to create a police or security force – it is based in a naval base because the rest of the capital is simply too dangerous.

     

    A new UN envoy, Lebanese former culture minister Ghassan Salamé, was appointed in June, and unveiled a plan in September that he calls a “Road Map” designed to reboot the GNA. 

     

    But the UN-backed GNA has rivals for power: The elected parliament in the eastern town of Tobruk, with general Khalifa Hafter as its army commander, has refused to accept it. In Tripoli, some militias back the GNA but others back a rival Salvation Government (also based in Tripoli), and armed clashes continue between the two groups.

    Libya UNSMIL 2

    Eskinder Debebe/UN
    Ghassan Salamé hopes to unite Libya behind the GNA

    Legally, the GNA can govern the whole country only after the Tobruk parliament has voted in favour of it, but such a vote has not come.

     

    Salamé's Road Map is an attempt to reform the GNA, cutting its presidency from nine members to three, in the hope this will persuade all Libya’s factions to give it their support. His plan hinges on a general conference of all Libyan groups pencilled in for next February, in which Salamé hopes to find agreement to defer to the GNA, and to hold elections later next year.

     

    It’s a tall order. Successive UN envoys have failed to devise a governing structure all Libya’s disparate groups will work within, the most obvious failure being the 2014 elections, which the UN supervised and which were the trigger for civil war. 

     

    Salamé's public statements have generally been relatively optimistic, but his comment last month to the Security Council hinted at the challenges ahead as well as the extent of current chaos: “Elections should not take place until we are certain that they will not add a third parliament or fourth government.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A migrant detention centre in Libya. Alessio Romenzi/UNICEF)

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    Libya’s downward spiral to shortages, militia power, and migrant abuse

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