Over the course of Easter Weekend 2020, 58 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea. Their calls for assistance were ignored by the Italian, Maltese, and Libyan coastguards. While the mounting body count in the Mediterranean no longer elicits public outrage like it did in 2015, the COVID-19 pandemic heightens the dangers migrants face as they cross the Sahara and central Mediterranean to Southern Europe. In an unprecedented move, on April 8th, the Italian government closed its ports to NGO search and rescue missions. Italy, a country which bore the brunt of the pandemic early on in its global trajectory, has declared that because of the COVID-19 epidemic, it cannot guarantee the safety of refugees escaping from war-torn Libya. Italy as well as Libya, which has been a partner to European border externalization schemes, have argued that the threat of COVID-19 outweighs any obligations towards African refugees in particular, destroying what little remains of maritime law.
Indeed, the Memorandum of Understanding Between Libya and Italy, which furnishes militias in Libya with substantial aid in the interception, sequestration, and detention of migrants, was extended with little public deliberation. This disavowal of responsibility towards refugees and migrants is the consequence of longstanding extralegal push back schemes between the European Union and Libya.
As Libya’s coastguard refuses to carry out migrant interception operations until financial details are hammered out, Maltese authorities have held refugees in indefinite detention at sea. They have repurposed the tourist ferry, the Captain Morgan, as a floating detention center, in effect precluding migrants from applying for asylum should they broach the impasse between territorial sovereignty and the sociopolitical space of the Mediterranean sea. Refugees held at sea cannot claim rights to asylum. Both in life and death they are in limbo.
This isn’t the first time, however, that the Mediterranean Sea has been used as a site of extra-legal detention, as a quarantine zone for “contagious and contaminating” migrants and a nowhere space between the European Union and the countries of the African continent. The political calculus of blocking migrants and refugees hinges on repurposing the sea as a sociopolitical space of absence. At sea, migrants are made absent by the abrogation or selective enforcement of existing treaties, by the very materiality of the sea which makes enumerating the numbers who’ve died difficult, and by images of racialized and spectacular (most often black) death.
While the 1982 amendment to the law of the sea stipulated that states and private maritime actors have a legal obligation to rescue those in distress regardless of nationality or refugee status, since the 1990’s maritime migration has been met with securitized practices to block migrants in third countries like Libya, or to return those same migrants to third countries. Third country mechanisms, like the push-back deals, or even the Khartoum Process, arrest the movements of African nationals between the countries of the African Union. EU policies aimed at getting at “the root causes of migration,” while initially promulgated as a development partnership between the EU and African countries, have instead focused on the containment and detention of African migrants and the exportation of European border regimes further into Africa.
This has dire consequences for migrants from the Horn of Africa especially as Europe’s hostile environment and authoritarian immigration policies are furthered without public deliberation under cover of the COVID-19 crisis. Eritreans in particular, who transit in high numbers relative to their population through the Central Mediterranean, are often kidnapped, extorted and tortured in Libyan detention centers. COVID-19 is yet another problem for Eritrean refugees trapped in abysmal conditions, alongside the abuse by unscrupulous guards, tuberculosis infections, starvation and mounting desperation. Nevertheless, the focus on COVID-19, the number of cases of which are small in Libya and much of Africa, and the common-sense language of containment and lockdown in the fight against COVID-19 obscures Europe’s involvement in the near decade long war in Libya and normalizes anti-migrant policies and sentiments within and outside the African continent.
Libya is in the midst of a protracted civil war, and in turn a proxy war in which Russian, Turkish and the EU interests are at play, one whose material and human costs have rarely been reported by mainstream Western media outlets. At heart in this African theater of war is a battle for what Europe means vis-à-vis Africa and the wider Mediterranean world. By keeping Africans out, European politicians hope to curb populist anti-immigrant politicians who threaten the integrity of the European Union, much like the Turkish and Russian arms and mercenaries who threaten whatever fragile legitimacy the Libyan Government of National Accord holds. The war in Libya, moreover, is also a battle for liberalism—one which my interlocutors, Eritrean refugee activists argue, hinges on whether the rule of law actually applies to black African refugees. Moreover, for Eritrean refugee activists, Libya indexes Europe’s racial contract with Africa in which Africans are unwanted but needed, while their struggles for freedom are largely illegible to Europeans.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the rights of migrants and refugees have only been further diminished by literally holding them in limbo and pre-emptively blocking them from reaching territories where they can make claims on rights. The pandemic has ultimately furnished European powers the ability to further their longstanding projects to limit African mobility within the African continent under the logic of policing and expelling dangerous and contaminating bodies. This in turn circumscribes Africans’ hopes for the future, while Europe is engaged in the radical dehumanization of African refugees trapped in Libya’s migrant detention regime which the Global Detention Project cited as one of the most damaging in the world. While European pandemic fears justify longstanding racist practices, the irony is that many African countries have actually had significantly more success in containing the pandemic than their European counterparts. The commonsense policies of border closures, moreover, have done little to curb the spread of a virus that moves alongside global logistics and travel routes. It has instead made even clearer our inter-dependence, the need for coordination and mutuality that global apartheid policies preclude.