Migrants, Militias & the Mediterranean Sea

By Marco Funk
BERLIN, Jul 11 2019 – When the Italian police recently arrested Carola Rackete, captain of the Sea-Watch 3 search and rescue vessel, the Central Mediterranean Sea suddenly entered the international limelight once again.

Media coverage of the most dangerous migration route in the world had previously been quite muted everywhere except Italy, where for months Interior Minister Matteo Salvini used every opportunity to publicly lambast the German NGO’s activities – despite low numbers of arrivals.

In fact, Captain Rackete became Salvini’s (and increasingly his voters’) enemy of choice well before her arrest. At the same time, she became a hero to those who support rescuing migrants at sea.

Yet despite the uproar, the row about NGO rescue ships represents only a small part of the complex geopolitical puzzle that drives irregular migration along this route. Carola Rackete’s arrest will have a very limited impact on the overall situation.

In order to truly understand what’s going on in the Central Mediterranean, one must retrace migrants’ steps all the way back to their countries of origin – often in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East or even South Asia.

Some are refugees as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, others are not, but practically all of them have good reasons to leave their homes. This mixed migration flow typically crosses several countries before entering Libya, the main gateway to Europe.

EU efforts in Libya since the fall of Gaddafi have focused heavily on curbing migration to Europe. Some activities bend or even violate international law to keep migrants at bay.

African migrants crossing the Sahara Desert face dangers as severe as those at sea, with an uncounted death toll possibly far greater than that in the Mediterranean. Once migrants enter Libya, they find themselves in a comparatively wealthy country – Libya holds Africa’s largest oil reserves.

However, it is also a war-torn country in political disarray since the fall of ex-dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The Libyan situation

At the moment, there are over 660,000 migrants in Libya according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration. Their conditions vary according to nationality and location.

Some long-term residents from North Africa or the Middle East are quite happy to stay in Libya, while more recent arrivals from sub-Saharan countries often face severe discrimination, exploitation and abuse.

As Libya never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees have no legal status in the country and cannot seek international protection there. In fact, undocumented migrants in Libya can be arrested and imprisoned at any time.

Local militias, acting as police in areas they control, also run detention centres where they extort money from migrants or sell those who cannot pay to smugglers and human traffickers.

Some of these same militia members are on government payrolls and are supported directly or indirectly by EU missions seeking to train and equip border police and coast guard officials.

EU efforts in Libya since the fall of Gaddafi have focused heavily on curbing migration to Europe. Some activities bend or even violate international law to keep migrants at bay.

But there’s no way to address the issue effectively without settling the ongoing power struggle between the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and rival Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the east of the country.

While the internationally recognised GNA is officially supported by the EU and Italy in particular, its actual control of Libyan territory is limited to Tripoli and some areas of Western Libya controlled by allied militias.

Meanwhile, France backs the LNA, which controls the east and parts of the south of the country either directly or by proxy through local militias. Haftar launched an attack on Tripoli in April 2019, just days before a planned national conference to organise presidential and parliamentary elections to help solve the political crisis in Libya.

The conflict is currently at a stalemate, with Haftar’s forces fighting against the GNA on the outskirts of Tripoli.

The EU needs a common strategy

The EU’s split position isn’t just awkward but indeed counterproductive in finding a solution to the conflict, and by extension the migratory situation as well. Italy and France should agree on a common strategy and facilitate a peace deal between the GNA and the LNA by using their respective influence on each side of the conflict.

The EU could then step up its capacity building work, help professionalise Libya’s security sector, strengthen civil society and invest in projects that unlock Libya’s economic potential. Stability and prosperity in Libya would significantly reduce migratory pressure to Europe by making it safer and more attractive as a destination country for labour migrants – as it was before the revolution.

As the European Parliament and the European Commission start their new terms this year, migration should be back at the top of their agendas.

Stabilising Libya will certainly take time and may not even be possible because the conflict is so complex and involves a multitude of internal and external non-EU actors. The EU must therefore simultaneously work towards a sustainable search and rescue, reception and relocation mechanism for those who manage to leave Libya.

Italy’s decision to close its ports and criminalise NGOs attempting to bring rescued migrants to shore is certainly deplorable. Yet it’s also understandable given the lack of solidarity other EU member states have demonstrated long before Salvini was elected to government.

As a result, Malta now feels the cold shoulder of northern and eastern European indifference as it receives more and more arrivals diverted from Italy. The current practice of ad-hoc, case-by-case relocations for each boatload of migrants rejected by the Italian authorities is simply not sustainable.

Solving the question of asylum seeker relocation within the EU may even be more difficult than achieving peace in Libya, as the never-ending standstill in negotiations between the European Parliament and Council on the reform of the Dublin Regulation demonstrates.

But it must be done. There’s no other way to handle the arrival of migrants seeking asylum in Europe. The alternative is a political backlash in frontline member states that threatens the entire EU project.

As the European Parliament and the European Commission start their new terms this year, migration should be back at the top of their agendas. However, in contrast to the last terms, they should approach irregular migration through the Central Mediterranean not as an isolated issue, but rather as one element in an interlinked set of challenges requiring integrated policy responses.

Only then does the EU stand a chance at finding sustainable solutions that can withstand the inevitable migratory pressure facing Europe in the future.

This article first appeared in International Politics and Society published by the International Political Analysis Unit of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Hiroshimastrasse 28, D-10785 Berlin.

Prejudice and Discrimination, the Uncured Ills of Leprosy

Nippon Foundation President Yohei Sasakawa and Socorro Gross, Pan American Health Organisation representative in Brazil, hold a press conference in Brasilia at the end of a 10-day visit to this country by the Japanese activist who is also World Health Organisation Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Nippon Foundation President Yohei Sasakawa and Socorro Gross, Pan American Health Organisation representative in Brazil, hold a press conference in Brasilia at the end of a 10-day visit to this country by the Japanese activist who is also World Health Organisation Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
BRASILIA, Jul 11 2019 – “The ambulance team refused to take my sick friend to the hospital because he had had Hanseniasis years before,” said Yohei Sasakawa, president of the Nippon Foundation, at one of the meetings held during his Jul. 1-10 visit to Brazil.

His friend was completely cured and had no visible effects of the disease, but in a small town everyone knows everything about their neighbours, he said.

This didn’t happen in a poor country, but in the U.S. state of Texas, only about 20 years ago, Sasakawa pointed out to underline the damage caused by the discrimination suffered by people affected by Hansen’s Disease, better known as leprosy, as well as those who have already been cured, and their families.

“The disease is curable, its social damage is not,” he said during a meeting with lawmaker Helder Salomão, chair of the Human Rights Commission in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, to ask for support in the fight against Hanseniasis, the official medical name for the disease in Brazil, where the use of the term leprosy has been banned because of the stereotypes and stigma surrounding it.

The highlight of the mission of Sasakawa, who is also a World Health Organisation (WHO) Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, was a meeting on Monday Jul. 8 with President Jair Bolsonaro, who posted a message on Facebook during the meeting, which had nearly 700,000 hits as of Thursday Jul. 11.

In the 13-and-a-half minute video, Bolsonaro, Sasakawa, Health Minister Luiz Mandetta and Women, Family and Human Rights Minister Damares Alves issued a call to the authorities, organisations and society as a whole to work together to eradicate the disease caused by the Mycobacterium Leprae bacillus.

A preliminary agreement emerged from the dialogues held by the Japanese activist with members of the different branches of power in Brasilia, to hold a national meeting in 2020 to step up the fight against Hanseniasis and the discrimination and stigma faced by those affected by it and their families.

The idea is a conference with a political dimension, with the participation of national authorities, state governors and mayors, as well as a technical dimension, said Carmelita Ribeiro Coriolano, coordinator of the Health Ministry’s Hanseniasis Programme. The Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation will sponsor the event.

Brazil has the second highest incidence of Hansen’s Disease in the world, with 27,875 new cases in 2017, accounting for 12.75 percent of the world total, according to WHO. Only India has more new cases.

The government established a National Strategy to Combat Hanseniasis, for the period 2019-2022, in line with the global strategy outlined by the WHO in 2016.

Brazilian Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights Damares Alves receives a gift from Yohei Sasakawa, president of the Nippon Foundation, at the beginning of a meeting in Brasilia, in which the minister promised to strengthen assistance to those affected by Hansen's Disease, including the payment of compensation to patients who were isolated in leprosariums or leper colonies in the past. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Brazilian Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights Damares Alves (L) receives a gift from Yohei Sasakawa, president of the Nippon Foundation, at the beginning of a meeting in Brasilia, in which the minister promised to strengthen assistance to those affected by Hansen’s Disease, including the payment of compensation to patients who were isolated in leprosariums or leper colonies in the past. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Extensive training of the different actors involved in the treatment of the disease and plans at the state and municipal levels, tailored to local conditions, guide the efforts against Hansen’s Disease, focusing particularly on reducing cases that cause serious physical damage to children and on eliminating stigma and discrimination.

Before his visit to Brasilia, Sasakawa, who has already come to Brazil more than 10 times as part of his mission against Hansen’s Disease, toured the states of Pará and Maranhão to discuss with regional and municipal authorities the obstacles and the advances made, in two of the regions with the highest prevalence rate.

“In Brazil there is no lack of courses and training; the health professionals are sensitive and give special attention to Hanseniasis,” said Faustino Pinto, national coordinator of the Movement for the Reintegration of People Affected by Hanseniasis (MORHAN), who accompanied the Nippon Foundation delegation in Brasilia.

“Promoting early diagnosis, to avoid serious physical damage, and providing better information to the public and physical rehabilitation to ensure a better working life for patients” are the most necessary measures, he told IPS.

Pinto’s case illustrates the shortcomings in the health services. He was not diagnosed as being affected with Hansen’s Disease until the age of 18, nine years after he felt the first symptoms. It took five years of treatment to cure him, and he has serious damage to his hands and joints.

His personal plight and the defence of the rights of the ill, former patients and their families were outlined in his Jun. 27 presentation in Geneva, during a special meeting on the disease, parallel to the 41st session of the Human Rights Council, the highest organ of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Pinto is an eloquent advocate of the use of Hanseniasis or Hansen’s Disease, rather than leprosy, a term historically burdened with religious prejudice and stigma, which aggravates the suffering of patients and their families, but continues to be used by WHO, for example.

Yohei Sasakawa (2nd-L), president of the Nippon Foundation, accompanied by two members of his delegation, took part in a meeting with Congressman Helder Salomão (C), chair of the Human Rights Commission of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, who pledged to support initiatives to eliminate leprosy in his country. Faustino Pinto (2nd-R), national coordinator of the Movement for the Reintegration of Persons Affected by Hanseniasis (MORHAN), also participated. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Yohei Sasakawa (2nd-L), president of the Nippon Foundation, accompanied by two members of his delegation, took part in a meeting with Congressman Helder Salomão (C), chair of the Human Rights Commission of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, who pledged to support initiatives to eliminate leprosy in his country. Faustino Pinto (2nd-R), national coordinator of the Movement for the Reintegration of Persons Affected by Hanseniasis (MORHAN), also participated. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Discrimination against people with the disease dates back to biblical times, when it was seen as a punishment from God, said Sasakawa during his meeting with Minister Damares Alves, a Baptist preacher who describes herself as “extremely Christian”.

In India there are 114 laws that discriminate against current or former Hansen’s Disease patients, banning them from public transport or public places, among other “absurdities”, he said.

In India, they argue that these are laws that are no longer applied, which justifies even less that they remain formally in force, he maintained during his meetings in Brasilia to which IPS had access.

Prejudice and misinformation not only subject those affected by the disease to exclusion and unnecessary suffering, but also make it difficult to eradicate the disease by keeping patients from seeking medical care, activists warn.

His over 40-year battle against Hansen’s Disease has led Sasakawa to the conclusion that it is crucial to fight against the stigma which is still rife in society.

He pressed the United Nations General Assembly to adopt in 2010 the Resolution for the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy and their Families.

He said these attitudes and beliefs no longer make sense in the light of science, but persist nonetheless.

Treatment making isolation for patients unnecessary in order to avoid contagion has been available since the 1940s, but forced isolation in leprosariums and leper colonies officially continued in a number of countries for decades.

In Brazil, forced segregation officially lasted until 1976 and in practice until the following decade.

With multi-drug treatment or polychemotherapy, introduced in Brazil in 1982, the cure became faster and more effective.

Information is key to overcoming the problems surrounding this disease, according to Socorro Gross, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) representative in Brazil who also held meetings with the Nippon Foundation delegation.

“Communication is essential, the media has a decisive role to play” to ward off atavistic fears and to clarify that there is a sure cure for Hansen’s Disease, that it is not very contagious and that it ceases to be so shortly after a patient begins to receive treatment, Gross, a Costa Rican doctor with more than 30 years of experience with PAHO in several Latin American countries, told IPS.