The desert front - EU refugee camps in North Africa?

by Helmut Dietrich

This article first appeared in the German journal Konkret (issue 12/2004) and traces the implementation of the creation of migrant and refugee prisons, so called off-shore centres, in northern Africa, as part of the EU's globalisation of migration control. With the example of recent developments in EU and particularly German and Italian relations with Libya, the author highlights the relationship between military, economic and migration control agreements between the EU and third countries and documents the devastating effect these have for migrants and refugees caught up in the militarisation of the EU's external borders.

"How can you forget the concentration camps built by Italian colonists in Libya into which they deported your great family - the Obeidats? Why don't you have the self-confidence, why don't you refuse?" the Libyan intellectual Abi Elkafi recently asked the Libyan ambassador in Rome, who had initiated the country's orientation towards the West. "The reason I write to you are the atrocious new concentration camps set up on Libya's soil on behalf of the Berlusconi government," Elkafi wrote in an open letter.

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

Military camps for refugees - the reality of off-shore centres

Four years ago, the western press received first reliable reports on internment camps in Libya. In September and October 2000, pogroms against migrant workers took place in Libya and 130 to 500 sub-Saharan Africans were killed in the capitol Tripoli and the Tripoli area. To escape the persecution, thousands of builders and service sector employees from Niger, Mali, Nigeria, and Ghana fled south. Many of them were stopped at road blocks in the Sahara and taken to Libyan military camps. Le Monde Diplomatique reported on several camps in where migrants and refugees have been held since 1996 - about 6,000 Ghanaians and 8,000 people from Niger are supposed to be held in one of them alone. The Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings visited the camp to bring back some hundred compatriots. The Somali Consultative Council appealed to Gaddafi on 22 February 2004 "to unconditionally release the Somali refugees who are imprisoned in your country and who have started a hunger strike immediately and not send them back to the civil war in Somalia." In the beginning of October 2004, the Italian state TV channel RAI showed pictures from a Libyan refugee camp. Hundreds of people were depicted in a court yard, heavily guarded; the barracks apparently do not have sleeping facilities. Reports of some of the Somalis who have recently been deported to Libya confirm the existence of these camps.

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

These imprisonments and deportations have now become antecedents of the so-called off-shore centres of the European Union, propagated particularly by Germany's interior minister Otto Schily. Libya is the first non-European country which allows for its camps to be integrated into the EU's deportation policies. Together with the new airlifts to Tripoli, by which African refugees are being deported collectively from Italy since 2 October 2004, first facts of this regime have been created. At the beginning of October 2004, the designated and later suspended EU commissioner Buttiglione announced during his hearing before the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the EU did not want to create "concentration camps" in north Africa, but wanted to use the already existing camps "in which refugees are living under the most difficult circumstances." At their informal meeting in Scheveningen on 30 September to 1 October 2004, the EU's justice and interior ministers agreed in principle that the EU is striving for the creation of "reception camps for asylum seekers" in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritius and Libya, not under supervision of the EU but of the respective countries.

Mostly unnoticed by the public, the EU states that form the EU's external borders are creating the preconditions for a new deportation regime. Whereas until recently, refugees and migrants who were stopped by border police were taken into the EU country, there are now enormous reception capacities on the Canary Islands and on the southern Italian and eastern Greek islands. This "initial reception" is no more intended to lead into European cities and the already meagre EU legal protection. The camps at Europe's peripheries are typically located near airports on former military compounds, guarded by paramilitary troops and hardly accessible even for the UNHCR. Contact to the outside world is made extremely difficult if not impossible. The facilities are secured with modern prison equipment. The Canary islands currently hold camps with altogether 1,950 places.

These camps in the Canaries, southern Italy and eastern Greece, also mark the introduction of a social change initiated by EU states: in the 1990's the boat people were welcomed by the Mediterranean population. Although the state declared a state of emergency when large refugee boats arrived and put them into stadiums, it remained a public event which attracted many inhabitants who drove to the stadium with clothes, blankets and food. With the new prison camps, the administration now systematically separates boat people from the society they arrive in and thereby creates the organisational preconditions for mass deportations to places outside the EU, far from any legal or societal control. Extraterritorial, law-free zones are being created at the fringes of Europe.

Since the beginnings of the 1990's, Western European migration and refugee strategy papers point to the EU intending to export the asylum procedures to places outside Europe. They outline a global migration control approach that ensures that refugees and unwanted migrants from Africa, Asia and South America do not reach Europe anymore. Central to this concept are camps encircling Europe.

Up to now these plans could not be implemented. German authorities unsuccessfully attempted to enforce this practise in the early 1990's after the war against Iraq, when the no-fly zone was created over Iraqi Kurdistan: they wanted to declare the area a "safe haven" for Iraqi refugees, to which they could be deported en masse. This did not succeed until the NATO war in Kosovo. Within a few weeks, the war zone was surrounded by refugee camps, thus stopping hundreds of thousands on their flight to the EU.

In the beginning of the current Iraq war, Tony Blair suggested the creation of refugee camps under the supervision of the EU but outside its territory. His "new vision for refugees", published in March 2003, foresaw returning those who would apply for asylum in the EU to outside the EU's borders. His vision was one of a 'camp universe', set up by EU officers and made up of Transit Processing Centres (TPC) in front of the gates of the EU, together with the UNHCR and the notorious International Organisation for Migration (IOM). From there they would be able to bring the refugees back to "safe" zones near their regions of origin and select a few for entry into the EU. When that plan became known to the public, it went down in a storm of protest.

Despite the public criticism, Otto Schily and Giuseppe Pisanu, the German and Italian interior ministers, developed the idea further in the summer of 2004. The European Commission together with the Strategic Committee for Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum (SCIFA) were to test preliminary measures of "a European asylum office with interception functions" in northern Africa (Schily in FAZ, 23.7.2004). In practise, this proposal implies that boat people coming through the Mediterranean were to be returned to camps located in Arab states - in collective procedures and without an individual check on their nationality, their flight route or reasons for flight. This practise is called refoulement and is explicitly prohibited in the Geneva Refugee Convention. EU Member States' constitutions as well as the European Convention on Human Rights prohibit refoulement as well. However, this practise not only concerns the violation of rights of asylum seekers. In internment camps or when deported to desert areas without support, migrants, no matter if they flee from poverty and hunger or for other "economic" reasons, suffer the same fate they were trying to flee. They are threatened with imprisonment, abuse and death.

Testing and developing military technology in the fight against migration

Recent international events have changed the political, military and economic situation to such an extent that desert camps have now come within Schily's and Pisanu's reach. The first barrier for unwanted refugees and migrants is Europe's external border policy. But since EU enlargement and the global "fight against terror", these policies are being formulated under different conditions. In 2001, the German and Italian interior ministries laid down their dream of an EU border police in EU documents. The plan was intended to bring the unsafe borders of certain members under centralised control. At first, the focus was on the eastern border of accession states, but the accession states were not exactly enthusiastic about the idea that especially German, together with other EU police officers, were to secure their eastern borders. They fear that a total closure of borders will create tensions with their eastern neighbours. Further, the German border guards have reaped antipathy in the local accession population in the Oder and Neiße region with their policing practises and the NS massacres committed by German troops in the Bug river region have by no means vanished from people's memories.

Politicians of the South European front states - as they are called in official EU documents - have less scruples. The anti-terrorist measures against the Arab-Muslim population has enforced a development of strong external borders. The operative core of a future EU border protection is based on the greater Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean Sea is a new challenge for the control fanatics. The goal is the 'virtual' extension of European borders to the North African coasts. Even the docking of the wooden boats is to be prevented. Furthermore, the border police long to control the Sahara-Sahel-zone, together with the military and European and American secret services, thus setting up a second 'rejection' ring around Europe. Besides stopping refugees, the oil and gas production in the desert has to be secured. Thus, the border surveillance agreement between Italy and Libya provides for an internationalised control of the 2,000 kilometres long coast line and also the 4,000 kilometres long desert border of Libya.

This can hardly be achieved by boat and jeep patrols. Control technologies tried and tested in the most recent wars will therefore also be deployed. Detection of refugees by air with optronic and radar technology is currently being tested all over the Mediterranean.

The Spanish Guardia Civil has rediscovered the surveillance tower. From above, the visual and electromagnetic identification technique can continuously and automatically scan the Straits of Gibraltar and the Moroccan coast. Other parts of the coast, due to the earth curvature, cannot be controlled by means of towers only. Nevertheless, the Canary Islands and the Spanish South Coast are equipped with the tower technology. Tests are made to link all accessible data in real time in order to identify and follow all ships in the controlled area. This technology, known as SIVE (Sistema Integrado de Vigilancia Exterior), is now exported to the Greek islands.

Meanwhile, Italy is practising the use of drones, which are planned to being used in Libya's desert borders. In October 2004, the Italian air force general Leonardo Tricarico announced that Italy had purchased five predator drones for 48 million dollars from the Californian arms company General Atomic Aeronautical Systems in San Diego. The US is using predators to chase al-Qaeda; the unknown flight object can also launch rockets. Tricarico explained that the Italian air force was planning to use the drones against terrorism as well as against irregular migration. By the end of October 2004, the Italian air force were trying to detect refugee boats from the air.

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

The ad hoc centres are combined in Schengen Committees, which by now should have long been subsumed within EU institutions regulated under the Amsterdam Treaty. These circles have launched new power centres to create an EU border protection within five years. Thus, SCIFA+ unifying the Schengen round with all EU border police forces was founded in 2002, and in 2003 the PCU was created - the coordinating unit of the practitioners. The latter sees itself as a crisis centre using focal points at the external borders to push through the centralised command structures, regarding the development of preventive measures and stringent controls of national border guard units as its duty.

It is hard to say whether these EU coordinated methods have failed so far, or whether they already have fatal outcomes. On the one hand, it is reported that a planned EU manoeuvre of various national naval units in the Straits of Gibraltar and around the Canary Islands was halted due to language difficulties. On the other hand, 'high tech' is regarded as a magic potion that motivates border police and marines who believe their work thereby becomes more valuable. The intensified search with technical equipment in the Straits has already forced boat people to use more dangerous waters to come to Europe. It can also be assumed that EU agencies declared the arrival of boat people on the Italian island of Lampedusa 'a state of emergency' in order to justify the need to implement extraordinary measures.

It is important to remember that according to official estimates, 400,000 to 500,000 people secretly cross the southern EU border every year. Whoever can afford it, arrives by plane with a false passport. Whoever has relatives and friends might go on one of the ferries engaged in the massive holiday traffic. Only the poor come on wooden boats. According to reliable calculations, more than 10,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since 1992, that is since visas became obligatory for the EU's southern neighbours. The European governments, however, do not declare a state of emergency because of the huge death tolls, but because of the arrival of around 30,000 boat people per year. In late summer 2004, around 1,800 people reached the island of Lampedusa. Obviously a high figure for a small island but small compared to the Mediterranean figure as a whole. The Italian state and the EU use them as a warning to others. Deterrence is the goal.

Oil interests and migration control - the economic agenda

The second aspect which brought the Libyan desert camps within reach of Pisanu and Schily is of economic nature. Since the mid-1990's, Gaddafi has slowly opened up Libya's economy and thus the oil and gas industry to foreign investors. Besides Russia, Libya is the most important non-European oil supplier for Germany, whereas Germany is the most important goods supplier to Libya after Italy. In 2002, the German minister for trade and commerce announced an 'export offensive' in the Middle East and North Africa - implying increasing investments in the oil and gas industry in these regions. The potential gains to be made from Libya have first priority here. In the 1970's, before economic cooperation decreased, most of the German investments in North Africa and the Middle East were made in Libya. Now, the German Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry does not only predict investment opportunities in the Libyan energy sector but also in infrastructure, telecommunication and health. Another big market is the food supply for the population, most of which has to be imported.

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

In July 2004, Libya clears the way for the participation of foreign investors in state companies. The government decides on the privatisation of 160 state companies, 54 of which cannot only sell shares to foreign investors but can be taken over by foreign capital by allowing for majority shareholding. The plan is to privatise 360 firms until 2008. At the end of July, the WTO lobbies for the accession of Libya. In August 2004, the German government re-introduces the so-called Hermes-Bürgschaften for Libya, which allows exporting companies to insure themselves against economic and political risk scenarios (many exporting firms can only export to certain countries with this guarantee).

On 5 September 2004, the Libyan state invites numerous interested firms from all over the world for a presentation on new oil and gas fields. The neo-liberal Libyan prime minister Shukri Ghanim announces that production licences will be put up for bidding in the coming months. According to recent estimates, Libya has the eighth biggest oil reserves world wide. The country currently produces 1,6 million barrels of crude oil per day. The goal is to increase production up to 2 million until 2010, with the help of numerous new foreign investments - in 1970, 3,5 million was produced per day. The low production costs and high quality of Libyan oil is attractive to foreign investors.

7 October 2004: Italian president Silvio Berlusconi visits Libya for the fourth time that year. This time to open the pipeline 'Greenstream' of the 'West Libyan Gas Project', built and operated by the Italian 'energy giant' ENI, the number one of the foreign companies active in Libya. 6.6 billion dollars were invested into the 520 kilometres long pipeline, now supplying gas from the Libyan Mellitah to Sicily. Until now, it is the biggest Mediterranean project of its kind and makes a second pipeline for Algerian gas obsolete. The day for the opening was chosen to coincide with the "day of revenge" in Libya, which celebrates the victory over colonialism since the 1970's. In consideration of Belusconi, Gaddafi renames it the "day of friendship" and declares the once despised enemy to be welcome guests.

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

14/15 October 2004: Chancellor Schröder, accompanied by German industrialists, visits Gaddafi. Schröder signs a bilateral investment agreement and is present when oil and gas concessions are granted to the German Wintershall, a subsidiary of the BASF group, represented in the country since 1958 and one of the leading foreign producers with an investment of 1.2 billion dollars. During the chancellor's visit, the German RWE group also started business in the oil and gas production, and the German Siemens group received contracts worth 180 million. Furthermore, the German government is interested in orders for "technical material like night vision gear or thermal cameras for border protection". Germany's economic goal is to dominate the Libyan foreign investment market. When Gaddafi mentions to the chancellor that Rommel's landmines are still causing accidents and that it was high times to clear them, the German side ignores the issue without comment.

The military and migration control - the foreign policy agenda

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

Like Pakistan and Turkey, Libya could soon be a privileged partner of the West as a stronghold against Islamism and Africa's failing states. Because of his leading role in Africa's integration and the African Union (which replaced the OAU in 2001), Gaddafi has a special influence in a lot of dependent states. This became clear during his role in freeing the hostages from Switzerland, Germany and Austria who were held in the Sahara. Negotiators and money from Libya also played a central role in the negotiations around some Western tourists, amongst them Germans, who were held by extremists on the Philippines in the summer of 2000. Now British officers will operate as consultants to the Libyan army. A military co-operation with Greece is agreed upon.

Resulting from a deal with Italy in 2003, Libya is currently purchasing boats, jeeps, radar equipment, and helicopters for border surveillance. Italian trainers and consultants are already in the country. According to press reports, Rome supplied tents and other material for three camps in Libya in the first days of August. "The camps are being set up", said Pisanu in an interview with the newspaper La Republica, "they were never under discussion". Meanwhile, the Italian navy is guarding large areas of the Libyan coast. Under pressure from Rome, Egypt is controlling the Red Sea for refugee ships. Funded with money from Italy, Tunisia is operating 13 deportation prisons of which 11 are kept secret, safe from public scrutiny. It is said that many of those refugees and migrants deported from Italy are being transported to the Tunisian-Algerian desert and abandoned there.

The German government is also responsible for arming the North African coast. According to the German defence ministry, Tunisia will receive six Albatross speed boats from the German navy. Already two years ago, it was agreed to deliver five speed boats to Egypt. In 2002, Algeria received surveillance systems at a value of 10,5 million EUR, Tunisia received communications and radar equipment for around 1 million EUR, Morocco received military trucks worth 4.5 million euro.

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


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