All posts by jamesreinl

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and world affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 35 countries and won awards for stories from Sri Lanka, Congo, Somalia, Haiti and Iran. His work has appeared on Al Jazeera, BBC, Foreign Policy, PRI's The World, Fox News, France 24, CBC, The Times, CBS News, dpa, RTÉ and APTN. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Sussex University and a postgraduate diploma in journalism.

Can Libya’s refugee nightmare get any worse?

Campaigners point fingers at the fragile Libyan government and its international partners.

NEW YORK // Observers inside Libya’s detention centers for migrants and refugees use words like “nightmarish,” “inhuman” and “hellish” to describe the dirty, over-crowded facilities where torture, rape and other horrors have taken place.

Detainees, mostly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who got caught in Libya on their way to Europe, complain of hunger, disease and forced labor. Thuggish guards allegedly beat and flog them, amid the chaos of Libya’s spiraling civil war.

Despite repeated pledges to shutter Libya’s detention centers for migrants and refugees, they remain open, in what campaigners describe as a collective failure of Libyan officials, the United Nations and the European Union.

On July 2, a detention center on a military base at Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, the capital, was hit in a double military strike that left 53 detainees dead and more than 87 others injured.

On the day of the attack, scared detainees tried to flee the carnage, but guards kept the doors locked, blocked windows and shot at those who tried to exit. The second, deadlier strike came minutes later.

After the Tajoura tragedy, officials from Libya’s United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) promised to shutter detention centers. The European Union and the United Nations agreed that it was time to close them once and for all.

Authorities moved the 600 Tajoura detainees to a UN migrant processing facility in Tripoli, but within weeks, some 200 detainees were again locked up. Little changed at the other 18 facilities nominally under GNA control, housing a total of about 5,000 refugees and migrants.

Tajoura’s new inmates include migrants picked up by Libya’s coast guard after their vessel capsized in the Mediterranean Sea on July 26 — a disaster claimed the lives of 150 passengers when they drowned.

“These are awful warehouses for stocking commodities, not human beings,” Vincent Cochetel, the special envoy for the Central Mediterranean situation at UNHCR, told The World.

More than 600,000 refugees and migrants are currently in Libya, with about 5,000 held in GNA centers. Detainees are not technically criminals and no formal charges have been brought against them, but they were caught entering or exiting Libya without legal papers.

Some 3,800 of them are close to the front lines of fighting in Libya’s civil war. Inmates frequently say they can hear heavy caliber guns firing nearby. A tragedy like Tajoura could happen again tomorrow, Cochetel said.

The strikes on Tajoura occurred after renegade military chief Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which gets support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and others, launched an attack in early April to seize control of Tripoli.

While pro-GNA forces weathered the initial LNA attack, fighting has ground to a stalemate on the outskirts of Tripoli, with both sides resorting to air attacks in recent weeks. The GNA blames the LNA for the Tajoura strike and consequent deaths, a charge the LNA denies.

“Enough is enough because people can just die from bombing those detention centers,” Cochetel said by phone from Tunisia. “Let’s assist those people out. It’s doable. We do it in other countries — so why not in Libya?”

A UNHCR plan involves the “phased and orderly” release of batches of inmates from detention centers and resettling them in western Libya’s towns and cities, with support from aid groups, Cochetel said.

Women and children would go to a new, open facility in Janzour, west of Tripoli.

The UN’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, floated the plan to the UN Security Council on July 29, urging envoys to press Tripoli to “take the long-delayed but much-needed strategic decision to free those who are detained in these centers.”

The Security Council has yet to act. Some GNA officials may be taking steps anyway. Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha has announced plans to close lockups in Tajoura, Misrata and Khoms in what Cochetel calls a response to international censure.

“This is a source of embarrassment and condemnation for the country and some authorities take the view that there’s too much bad press from these detention centers and there are other ways to manage migration pressure,” Cochetel said.

Still, progress will be slow, he added. Some detention centers are run by local militias who do not always follow Bashagha’s orders. Some guards and managers have financial stakes in keeping detention centers open and pocketing cash from forced labor schemes.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has uncovered rings of smugglers, militiamen and criminals who run kidnapping, ransom and slave rackets, with networks stretching inside detention centers.

HRW researchers highlighted the case of Abdul, a teenage refugee from Sudan. Guards at al-Karareem detention center, near Misrata, beat him on the soles of his feet with a hose after an attempted breakout by other inmates, they said.

HRW also bashed the European Union for funding a scheme that sees Libya’s coast guard intercept migrant boats at sea before returning those found onboard to the turbulent North African country, and holding them in places like Tajoura.

EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said that caging migrants was “completely unacceptable” and that Libya’s lockups should be shuttered, but that the bloc would continue funding a coastguard scheme that stops migrants from reaching Europe.

“Our priority is saving lives at sea and putting an end to the cruel and inhumane business mode of the smugglers,” Kocijancic, the bloc’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, told The World.

“We engage with the Libyan coast guard and provide training, including on human rights, to enhance their capacity to save people’s lives and make Libyan territorial waters more secure for everyone.”

But Judith Sunderland, a director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW, said the EU should go further and take responsibility for search-and-rescue sea operations and ensure that no rescued migrants are sent back to Libya.

The bloc should “press Libyan authorities to release all arbitrarily detained migrants” and strengthen UN schemes to evacuate migrants and refugees out of Libya, including settling more of them in European cities, Sunderland said.

“We hoped that the tragedy at Tajoura would have given some real impetus to pledges that were made, but we haven’t really seen that,” Sunderland said.

“There’s no excuse for not coming up with viable plans to release refugees and migrants and evacuate them to safer places, including Europe.”

Still, getting anything done is a challenge in Libya, which has seen little but chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed president Muammar Gaddafi and saw the country spiral into a civil war that continues today.

Addressing the council, Salame called for a truce despite the fact that neither side looked like it was going to “silence the guns.” With arms still flowing, he warned of a “full-blown civil war with serious, potentially existential consequences for Libya and its neighbors.”

Article originally appeared on PRI’s The World.


Obituary: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe

Love or despise him, Mugabe was one of the most consequential of Africa’s post-colonial leaders.

At his best, Robert Mugabe could rank beside such revolutionaries as Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. In the 1970s, he was Africa’s teacher-turned Marxist rebel against white rule who declared: “Our votes must go together with our guns.”

He remains a Zimbabwean liberator who defied the West but Mugabe, who died on Friday aged 95, will also be remembered by some as an autocrat who butchered opponents, rigged votes and gobbled up cake at lavish birthday parties while his people went hungry.

“Mugabe was one of the most consequential of Africa’s post-colonial leaders. He remains highly regarded by many for his leadership role in the insurgency against white minority rule,” Brett Schaefer, Africa analyst at The Heritage Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

“But the violence and chaos resulting from his struggle to hold on to power led to thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and economic impoverishment. Mugabe’s legacy will forever be stained by his destructive and murderous acts.”

Mugabe was born under British colonial rule in Southern Rhodesia in 1924, the son of Bona and Gabriel, a carpenter. Despite poor school and job prospects for most black people, he gained a Jesuit education and thrived in academia.

Frustrated by racism and white-settler rule, Mugabe embraced socialism and grew more hardline. He spent 11 years in jail, waging a rebellion from behind bars via his resistance movement, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

The fierce bush war brought white settlers to the negotiating table and led to a British-brokered accord in 1979.

By the end of the following year, Mugabe was elected prime minister of the newly-founded Republic of Zimbabwe.

His early socialist reforms brought teachers and medics to rural backwaters and boosted grain harvests.

But Mugabe also launched a crackdown on political rivals in the Matabeleland region that claimed the lives of some 20,000 Ndebele civilians.

After serving two terms as prime minister, he abolished the position and became president in 1987, a post he held for 30 years.

“He was a ruthless authoritarian, not burdened by democratic practice. But don’t mistake him for a much larger machine that operates in Zimbabwe – the ruthless ethos Mugabe represented is deeply-embedded in his political party, ZANU-PF,” academic Stephen Chan told Al Jazeera.

“They believe that those who fought in the Liberation War, from the beginning, against all odds, deserve to rule. Now they have entrenched modes of financial practice within Zimbabwe’s economy that they don’t want to give up.”

Zimbabwe had begun to recover from conflict, but a land reform policy that saw black farmers take over white-owned farms sparked domestic chaos and global outrage. Western nations slapped sanctions on the country and it was suspended from the Commonwealth.

For Mugabe, land grabs corrected colonial-era injustices and his defiance of Western “imperialism” resonated across the continent.

“The land is ours, we give it to who we please, it’s not the business of Britain to tell us who to give land and who not,” he told Al Jazeera in 2000.

This won Mugabe loyalty from war veterans, cronies and others who seized land; but it also led to an exodus of white farmers, hyperinflation and shortages of foodstuffs that slashed 40 percent off the economy, according to World Bank figures.

“Getting rid of white farmers was one of his biggest mistakes – it led to sanctions and economic collapse,” Tom Wheeler, a former South African ambassador, told Al Jazeera.

“It was catastrophic. The people couldn’t feed themselves any more, while Mugabe’s inner circle was high on the hog.”

In the maelstrom, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged as a political rival. In 2010, Tsvangirai told Al Jazeera that the president had squandered his legacy and “betrayed the liberation that he fought for”.

Mugabe intimidated voters and rigged election outcomes, both the opposition and Western powers have said. Operation Restore Order saw the destruction of the homes or businesses of 700,000 mostly poor backers of the opposition in the capital, Harare, in 2005.

“The way he ran roughshod over the rule of law was an unmitigated disaster,” John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, told al Jazeera.

“If ever there was a continent that desperately needs rule of law, it’s Africa. It’s crucial for development and political security. But, for his supporters, it was all about land: Mugabe’s expulsion of whites cancels everything else.” 

While Tsvangirai won more votes in the 2008 election, Mugabe fought back with violence and the threat of greater bloodshed to broker a power-sharing “government of national unity”, in which he held on to the presidency.

“He had no sentimentality at all,” added Chan, author of Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence.

“He could feign normal, human feelings for public consumption; but if Mugabe needed to make a political corpse out of somebody and put a knife in their back, even if they had been a long-standing comrade, with him through thick and thin, he would do it.”

Once a charming pan-African visionary, Mugabe had dropped his socialist ideals and become a petty dictator, clinging to power and lavishing some $250,000 on his 85th birthday party in 2009, while Zimbabweans died of cholera.

In increasingly-erratic public appearances, he railed against Africa’s former imperial overlords. Britain was using “gay gangsters” to undermine him.

Only God – and not “the MDC, not the British” – could unseat him.

The father of four children from two marriages had become a pariah – the “Hitler of the time”, he said.

As economic hardship bit ordinary Zimbabweans, Mugabe was forced to step down by the military in November 2017 following nationwide mass protests.

After his resignation, he continued to live at home in Harare, visiting Singapore multiple times for medical treatment.

Despite his ignominious exit from the political scene, Mugabe’s legacy as a liberator was recognised by his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, when he announced his death on Friday.

“Cde Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.