Helmut: In The desert front - EU refugee camps in North
Le front du désert : des camps européens de réfugiés
en Afrique du Nord
The desert front - EU refugee camps in North Africa?
Le front du désert : des camps européens de réfugiés
en Afrique du Nord
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Source : http://www.statewatch.org/news/2005/mar/12eu-refugee-camps.htm