As 9 Survivors, 155 Others Return Home, Smuggling Warehouse Shooting Exposes Why Migrants Pass Through Libya

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IOM staff in Tripoli providing information and support to migrants departing Tripoli on a voluntary humanitarian flight 

Crushing poverty and festering conflict in Africa and the Middle East fuel the growing tide of migration to Europe. Migrants fleeing from the two worrisome plagues typically pass through Libya on their way to Europe, departing Tripoli’s rocky coast in inflatable dinghies.

The Libyan coast guard, trained by the European Union (EU) to keep migrants from reaching European shores, often intercepts boats at sea and returns them to Libya, where many migrants land in detention centres rife with torture and abuse.

Very recently, the coast guard rescued 211 migrants, including women and children, in the Mediterranean Sea and brought them back to Libya’s shore, said International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) Spokeswoman, Safa Msehli.

Disturbingly, the number of those fleeing Libya’s conflict has risen sharply in recent weeks, according to the UN migration agency, as the battle for control of the capital intensifies.

In the past week alone, nearly 700 migrants were stopped and returned to detention facilities.

Forces allied with the Tripoli government have been defending the country’s capital from a year-long offensive by eastern-based militias led by warlord, Khalifa Haftar, trying to capture it.

TRT World which boasts of providing new perspectives on world events to a global audience, reports that over the past five years, Haftar has emerged as a man Friday for several foreign powers who have a vested interest in exploiting the Libyan conflict.

With a destructive aim to topple the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA),   Haftar has cosied up to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia and Egypt, convincing them that his foreign policy goals are aligned with theirs.

The cajolery has worked. Haftar has been receiving arms and intelligence support from these countries, this, in turn, has allowed him to fuel chaos and violence in the conflict-torn region. Since his initial involvement in the Libyan civil war in 2015, Haftar has reversed all the peacebuilding efforts that were made by the GNA, dragging the country into another vicious round of a sectarian conflict.

Much to the surprise of regional observers, Haftar even receives support from Iran, a country that has been a longtime rival of his other allies, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

According to recent news reports, Tehran has been supplying advanced weaponry, including anti-tank guided missile systems called ‘Dehlaviyeh’. They are being used by militias associated with Haftar’s forces.

While his proxies enjoy Iranian support, Haftar has had no qualms about holding secret meetings with Israeli officials, according to several news reports. Israel and Iran are avowed enemies, but Tehran seems to have brushed aside that aspect and tacitly sided with Haftar.

So what kind of support has the warlord extracted from these countries?

Israel

Although Haftar most recently struck a cautious note regarding his ties with Israel, the former military general has attracted a lot of media attention for having backdoor meetings both with the Israeli government and its intelligence agency Mossad.

In one, reportedly mediated by the UAE in the summer of 2018, Israel agreed to supply weapons to a Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA). The cache included sniper rifles and night vision equipment, according to media reports.

Many say his support from Israel is based on the notion that he is fighting so-called Islamic extremism and Daesh, but US-based journalist Richard Silverstein’s investigation reveals Haftar’s politics is driven more by vengeance and less by establishing peace in Libya. Silverstein quotes a source from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), saying: “A friend of our friend – and an enemy of our enemy – is our friend, and Haftar is a friend of Egypt, Jordan and UAE. He also fights Daesh.”

For Israel, Libya carries a strategic weight. One of its main motives behind aiding Haftar is securing maritime routes in the Eastern Mediterranean — a resource-rich archipelago where Israel has built a gas pipeline to supply gas to Europe. Besides that, Haftar occupies oil-rich territories of Libya from which Israel can potentially benefit.

The US

Born in 1943, Haftar rose to prominence after taking part in the 1969 military coup, toppling Libya’s King Idris. As the monarch was replaced by Muammad Gaddafi, he soon became his top military officer. Gaddafi tasked him with invading Chad in the 1980s, where he was captured in 1987 along with several hundred Libyan soldiers. Gaddafi was quick to disown him and his troops, denying that he had ever sent any soldiers to the region.

Haftar was released, thanks to US intervention, and Washington offered him political asylum in Virginia. He spent the next 20 years there, living close to the CIA headquarters.

Russia

On the one hand, Russia has openly supported the UN’s mediation efforts led by Special Envoy Ghassan Salame, and on the other hand, the country blocked a UN Security Council statement which looked to call on Haftar to halt his advance on Tripoli and the UN-backed government.

US Africa Command states that as many as two thousand mercenaries belonging to the infamous Russia-based Wagner Group were believed to be sent to Libya. According to several reports, the Wagner Group is closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia is seeking to secure oil and construction deals in Libya, which “possesses the largest oil reserves and fourth-largest natural gas reserves on the continent.” Despite Moscow’s repeated denials that they operate in Libya, evidence emerged that the country sent more than a dozen fighter jets to support Haftar.

France

Despite Paris officially backing efforts for a peaceful solution in Libya, according to French newspaper Le Monde, France has gone out of its way to ensure that the warlord is fully armed, even deploying their special forces for the training of his militias.

Although France has thus far feigned ignorance over their supplying of weapons and offering logistical support to Haftar’s forces, its active involvement dates back to 2015. It was at this time that Haftar emerged as a force in the conflict.

Much to the shock and embarrassment of the Macron administration, Paris’s position on Libya was revealed in 2016 when three undercover French soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Benghazi.

Since the event, France has time and again come under international scrutiny over its role in Libya’s civil war. For one, it has violated the UN arms embargo on several occasions.

In July 2019, a Pentagon investigation concluded that Paris had supplied American-made anti-tank missiles to Haftar’s forces. Each missile is worth $170,000 and the US only sells it to “close allies,” such as France.

GNA Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj in April accused the Macron administration of backing a “dictator.”

The UAE

The UAE has been one of the main supporters and sponsors of Haftar and his militias. Abu Dhabi has supplied Haftar with advanced weaponry systems in violation of the UN arms embargo.

Haftar’s militias rely heavily on Emirati air support which includes the alleged deployment of Chinese-made drones, Wing Loong II, used during attacks on the new government in Tripoli.

A UN report revealed that the UAE supplied Haftar with the Russian-made advanced air defence systems, Pantsir S-1s, which were installed at the al-Jufra base near the town of Gharyan.

Another report in 2017 said that the Gulf country was behind the construction of an airbase in eastern Libya and provided Haftar with aircraft as well as military vehicles.

Reports in April 2020 emerged that UAE-based companies shipped 11,000 tonnes of jet fuel to the warlord – a repeat violation of the international arms embargo. The shipment is under investigation by the UN and is believed to have had a market value of $5 million at the time it was loaded in the UAE and was delivered last month to eastern Libya, Haftar’s headquarters.

Saudi Arabia

Along with the UAE, Riyadh is also considered a Haftar backer. The Wall Street Journal revealed that during Haftar’s assault on the UN-backed government, Saudi Arabia was quick to offer millions of dollars of help to fund the warlord’s offensive.

According to the report, that offer came after Haftar’s visit to the country in late March 2019, a month before the warlord’s offensive on Tripoli. Haftar accepted the help and used the money to buy tribal loyalty, for recruitment and to pay fighters and other military expenditures.

Egypt

Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah el Sisi came into power in 2013 by toppling the first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup. Haftar’s endorsement by the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been followed by Egypt – with the country now going so far as threatening to intervene militarily in Libya.

Cairo has used its long border with Libya to provide both logistical and weaponry support to Haftar according to Al Jazeera.

Recently, the Egyptian dictator argued that Cairo has a legitimate right to intercede in Libya and support Haftar’s militia. This comes after the warlord’s forces have faced heavy losses against the UN-backed government forces over the last few months.

Iran

Tehran last month announced that it supports the GNA in Libya. It came after a joint conference attended by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Despite the GNA of Libya enjoying the recognition of the UN as the sole legitimate government, Iran has refused to recognise it. The irony here is that Iran has cited the lack of support from the Tobruk Parliament to the GNA as its reason. The eastern-based Tobruk parliament was the one which later established a rival government to the internationally-recognised GNA, and went on to support warlord Haftar.

Last May, Israel’s UN envoy, Danny Danon sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council claiming that Iran was sending advanced weapons to the warlord.

In the mean time, nine survivors of the May 27 tragic shooting in the Libyan town of Mizdah, are among the 164 migrants who arrived home on a Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) flight from Libya.

Thirty migrants, including 26 Bangladeshis, were shot and killed in a smuggling warehouse.

Authorities in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, say the family of a slain Libyan human trafficker attacked a group of migrants in a town that recently changed hands amid the fighting over the country’s capital, killing 26 Bangladeshi and four African migrants.

Though the UN-supported government gave scant information about the attack, the UN migration agency however said the migrants were shot and killed in a smuggling warehouse in the desert town of Mizdah, where a group of migrants were being held.

The slayings underscore the perils that migrants face in Libya, where violence and lawlessness have created a haven for smugglers to operate along the North African country’s coastline.

The government said migrants had killed a local trafficker in Mizdah, near Tripoli, allegedly prompting his family to take revenge and kill the 30 migrants.

Eleven migrants were wounded in the rampage, it added, and taken to a hospital in the western mountain town of Zintan.

Other migrants in critical condition were rushed to clinics in Tripoli, said the International Organization for Migration, adding that some appeared to be victims of abuse.

The Interior Ministry in Tripoli issued an arrest warrant for the suspected attackers, the government also said.

“This senseless crime is bleak reminder of the horrors migrants have to endure at the hands of smugglers and traffickers in Libya”, said IOM’s Libya Chief of Mission, Federico Soda, urging Libyan authorities to launch an immediate investigation into the killings and hold the perpetrators accountable.

However, the migrants were aboard the charter which landed at Dhaka’s Hazarat Shajalal International Airport (HSIA). With the nine survivors were other vulnerable migrants, including 39 people with medical conditions.

IOM medical escorts travelled with the migrants to Bangladesh whereupon arrival health teams were on hand to coordinate care for requiring quarantine at government facilities.

Teams of the UN migration agency are also will providing referral support to specialised services and follow up with assistance to migrants with chronic conditions.

Eligible migrants will receive reintegration support once they have completed their government-mandated quarantine period. Follow-up care is particularly important for people who experienced physical and psychological trauma while stranded in Libya.

The deadly attack in Mizdah, southwest of Tripoli also left 11 other migrants critically injured. IOM and its partners have supported those survivors in the months following the violence.

“I can’t forget the incident, it was like living a nightmare”, says Syed Khan. “I was shot, and it took me four months to recover enough to make the journey home. Many of us haven’t fully recovered and we are still traumatised. I am grateful to IOM and the Government of Bangladesh for the medical and other support they provided in Libya and for arranging my flight home.”

COVID-19 has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of migrant workers across the world, said Giorgi Gigauri, IOM Bangladesh’s Chief of Mission.

“We are working to overcome movement and other restrictions to access vulnerable migrants who are stranded and in need of support”, IOM’s Gigauri said.

“We are working closely with the Government—in particular the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment—to ensure their access to health services, shelter, food, consular services, and for the most vulnerable, flights home.”

Most migrants will return to Bangladesh through HSIA, the country’s busiest airport. There IOM, in coordination with the Government’s Communicable Disease Control (CDC) Division, has been working since March to build the capacity of point of entry (POE) staff to identify, screen, and refer travelers with COVID-19 symptoms.

In Bangladesh, IOM supports the government at 20 of the 28 POEs in the country. COVID-19-responsive systems and procedures at POEs enable the safe re-entry of migrants while ensuring protection for frontline POE staff and communities across the country.

Aside from on-arrival assistance to migrants, IOM also provides tele-counselling, health referrals and follow-ups, skills diversification and financial literacy training, and reintegration support for the most vulnerable returning migrants.

To improve migrant protection, voluntary return and reintegration along the Central Mediterranean route in Africa, the European Union (EU), through the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), launched the Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration in Africa with IOM in 2016.

The flight was made possible with the support from the EUTF.

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