Rape, torture, enslavement, ransom demands to families, children held prisoners, new-borns left to die. Official detention centres, informal detention centres, houses and farms turned into prisons. Endless reports and dossiers compiled by international organisations – by the UNHCR, the UN, the IOM – as well as by NGOs and journalists, have in recent years detailed the monstrous conditions of migrants in Libya. Sometimes it’s a single image: a man sold into slavery, a woman on the ground with chained hands and feet; more recently, images plucked out of this horror by someone who was undergoing it and who risked being tortured or killed for showing them to the world. From the opposite shore of the Mediterranean, the European Union has underwritten and financed agreements to prevent migrants from leaving Libya; with its Memorandum of Understanding with the Al Sarraj government and its “closed ports” strategy, Italy has been financing these camps and the training of Libyan coast guards, and, along with the other member states of the EU, it has been providing ever more sophisticated technology for capturing human beings before they leave the Libyan coast. Stuck in the middle is Tunisia, a small nation whose border is sometimes open and sometimes closed, and that allows or prevents those escaping this Libyan hell via land to enter its territory, but which does not give them any chance of acquiring refugee status or any other form of legal right to remain on its territory.
There are no two ways about it: it is absolutely monstrous. It is a monstrosity that is the upshot of decades-long implementation of policies by the European Union and its member states that seek to restrict the movement of people. Just to mention a few of the key tools of these policies: the introduction of entry visas, which drastically limits persons’ freedom of movement; the externalisation of frontiers; the creation of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), with its various missions on land and sea; the agreements with states of origin; the seaborne patrols; the generation of death in the Mediterranean; the ever more costly expenditure on high technology for the security industry; the creation of various kinds of detention centres both in destination countries as well as in transit nations beyond the borders of the EU; the progressive dismantling of the status of political asylum; the criminalisation of so-called economic migrants as well as of so-called “bogus refugees”, and the following criminalisation of any form of solidarity with migrants. The list could go on, but this is not the place to spell it out in full. One of the results of all this is the absolutely monstrous and hellish conditions of migrants in Libya, and the daily death toll in the Mediterranean.
As inhabitants and as activists in a zone that passes from Libya through Tunisia to Europe, we are all implicated in the infernal situation of people trapped in Libya. Some of those who are held prisoners in Libya attempt to escape by passing through the land border into Tunisia, and sometimes they make it across. Yet the only way out of Tunisia, apart from visas that are rarely granted, is to take to the sea, with its burden of death and loss. Some do arrive in Europe, but Europe has itself contributed greatly to the Libyan hell. Over the years we have witnessed a gradual reduction in the room for political action capable of undermining the presuppositions of this situation. At the current moment, this is limited to solidarity and aid for migrants to help them through the funnel that is the Mediterranean, or at the choke points of land frontiers, where effective action and the affirmation of rights is ever more restricted. In the face of what seems to be a state of absolute impossibility, must we remain powerless and resign ourselves to being so? Or can we not instead imagine, invent or glimpse towards some possibility of action?
In an effort to construct a space in which to exist and to imagine as a collectivity that refuses to be over-determined by government policies restricting the movement of people – policies carrying their burden of death and the monstrous restraint of bodies – we, as inhabitants and activists from parts of the EU border zone, have created the informal group Europe-Zarzis-Afrique. Zarzis is a Tunisian city on the Mediterranean near the Libyan border, from which many young Tunisians have departed and which has been reached in recent years by people from Sub-Saharan African countries, either by having been saved at sea or by crossing the border from Libya. It is a border city that is made aware on a constant basis of the death-dealing migration policies of the EU and its accomplices, of the grief of Tunisian families whose sons have been lost during the crossings, of fishermen who find bodies in the water, of the on-going commitment to bring aid to those who have been shipwrecked, of the burial of the dead and of the recording and construction of the memory of what is unfolding. We have sought to imagine a grassroots action that wholly distances itself from those of states and of international organisations that are accomplices to these murderous policies, and in complete opposition to the border externalisation policies of the EU and also to the discriminatory policies of the Tunisian state towards migrants. With this in view, we are organising for the beginning of August 2019, in the first instance, a seminar aimed at sharing and imagining alternative forms of economic production and livelihood, both for the citizens of Zarzis and for people fleeing Libya. We will then be staging a march towards the border with Libya, which is currently a crucial site in the game of murderous migration policies. To make these actions meaningful, we need the support and participation of everyone who, like us, refuses to remain fettered in this monstrous absurdity. In the months running up to these mobilisations in Zarzis, we will be contacting organisations, associations, groups, collectives and individuals with the aim of building these actions together.
We therefore ask you to write to us at our email address or on our Facebook page with suggestions about how to structure the seminar (people to invite, topics to discuss, experiences already brought to fruition, search for funding), which we would like to centre on some main themes (agriculture, fishing, craftwork, tourism) and that we view as just a first step towards building alternative approaches to living and sharing a border space.
Our programme in Zarzis:
1, 2, 3 August 2019: workshop
4 August 2019: march to the border
5 August 2019: debriefing meeting and planning for future projects
We hope many of you will join us!
Informal group Europe Zarzis Afrique; Carovane Migranti