By Pamela Kerpius and Nick O’Connell
COVID-19 has forced a reckoning for citizens of countries rarely confronted with death at regular intervals and at such a large scale. But for Libya the presence of death is nothing new, and with the European Union’s latest Mediterranean mission in place meant to curb the region’s conflict, Operation Irini, it is all but certain to be exacerbated.
Irini is branded and launched to enforce the existing UN-mandated arms embargo on Libya, a would-be peace mission (Irini means “peace” in Greek) to block the trade of weapons to the many fighting factions, including to warlord General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).
Haftar’s army has besieged Tripoli, the capital of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, for over a year, and its indiscriminate attacks are well-documented and include the bombing of the country’s only pandemic-equipped hospital in Tripoli just two weeks ago on April 6.
“[Libyans] know how difficult it is to lose family and friends,” said Ayman, a Libyan national living in Yafran, a mountainous city south of Tripoli.
“I wished there was no war, so that those exposed to the virus could come to Libya, and live here until the pandemic died out,” he said. But Libya remains one of the deadliest and most dangerous war zones in the world.
And the credibility of Operation Irini as a supporting peace-making initiative to stabilize conflict in Libya is doubtful.
Ostensibly a replacement for its predecessor, the politically unpopular Operation Sophia, the EU’s now defunct anti-migrant-smuggling mission that operated along the Mediterranean Libyan coast, with varying degrees of struggle and limited success, began five years ago and ended last month on March 31, 2020.
Irini inherits its management wholesale.
The days of Sophia may be over, but its leadership, personnel, and headquarters remain intact. They’ve just moved under the name Irini, shifting a once-humanitarian effort into an all-out political one.
In theory, the mission was designed to “enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya,” as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Joseph Borrell has said, and to slow the violence engulfing the war torn country. Irini could destabilize the region further, however, and disproportionately cripple al-Sarraj’s government, the opposite of its intended effect.
EU vessels in fact obstruct the allied route from Turkey through the eastern Mediterranen to Tripoli, where al-Sarraj’s GNA awaits key arms shipments used in fortification against Haftar’s offenses.
Haftar, one of the targets of the embargo meanwhile finds his arms supply less impacted, with arms stocks replenished from neighboring Egypt, where Irini has no jurisdiction, as is the case at all Northern African territorial borders.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, other key military backers of Haftar’s LNA, remain unaffected as well, delivering arms not through the Mediterranean but across the Red Sea and Egypt.
Haftar’s coalition is expected to suffer economic losses due to blocked oil exports in the eastern Mediterranean, but critical funding and arms supply routes remain open and unaffected by the new European mission.
It begs the question again in the EU’s turbulent history of Mediterranean operations, of just what problem it intends to address with its presence: the easing of the migration flow in the name of upholding human rights on land and at sea, or a short-sighted response to the latest political caprice.
Operation Sophia failed for the persistent and insidious shifting of anti-migration themes across the EU political system, and left the lives and rights of migrants a trivial concern in its wake. So while it may be an end in name and in practice of Sophia, with Irini, the EU shows us a veritable repackaging of that mission that puts presence in the Mediterreanean without ever confronting the blows to humanity it is meant to mitigate.
In this theater of avoidance, Operation Irini will ultimately succeed at an unstated mission to evade sea rescues. Its eastward zone of refocus demands so, leaving the Central Mediterranean route, where the majority of movement takes place (including that of the people profiled in the Migrants of the Mediterranean archive), unattended.
The Central Mediterranean, in the EU’s stead, is observed by the scant and overwhelmed NGO search-and-rescue ships, who will next, and with weary and ailing passengers aboard, be left to plead for a safe port now with COVID levied against them in an already ragged campaign.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR has suspended migrant relocations. And alongside the worsening conflict in the area thousands of people remain either imprisoned, confined, or on the move.
For a country like Libya, where Haftar’s LNA offenses have been renewed, and where the animosity between its two factions’ leaders has been brought current by refusals on either side to inhabit even the same negotiating room, it is its most powerless of citizens and migrants who are left at the mercy of its civil war.
And for the EU, it is left facing the same issue of migration it has been addressing through avoidance for years.
Since Italy’s Mare Nostrum ended in 2014––the last mission devoted to saving lives at sea––it has been one reactive amendment to sea missions after another.
The iterations of Operation Sophia and the controversial outsourcing of the Libyan coast guard to save lives on the EU’s behalf have been political knee jerks. Operation Irini, conveniently refocused away from the zone where humanity needs it most, is no exception.
But as with anything political, Irini too will end. Humanity, however, will not.
Nor its migration away from a place tattered, torn and that will continue to come face-to-face with death for a period even COVID-19 can’t outpace.
Credit: This article was first published by "Migrants of the Mediterranean", a humanitarian storytelling publication.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Libya Observer