TRIGGER WARNING FOR GRAPHIC DETAILS OF ASSAULT, TORTURE AND SEXUAL ABUSE. Further disclaimer: I usually steer clear of graphic depictions of rape, abuse or torture because I do believe they can (and often are) used as “media porn” without any motive behind their use (i.e. without a political or analytical context). However, I am making an exception because I wholeheartedly believe that these stories provide an essential element to contextualize EU wide immigration policies and border interventions.
On the news today: Migrants in Italy testify over alleged rape
Migrants who survived a shipwreck in which 366 people died testified in court on Monday ahead of a trial against a Somali people smuggler who allegedly raped and tortured them during their voyage from Eritrea.
The seven Eritreans who gave evidence at the hearing included an 18-year-old girl who cowered in the arms of a police officer in court when she saw her suspected rapist, Elmi Mouhamud Muhidin, Italian media reported.[…]
Prosecutors during Monday’s hearing alleged that Muhidin was the director of the detention facility in Libya where the migrants were held before being taken to the coast to begin their ill-fated sea journey. The closed-door hearing took place in Palermo in Sicily.
The investigators said that a total of 20 women who boarded the ship had been raped by Muhidin and his henchmen and that only the girl who testified on Monday had survived the nighttime shipwreck just off Lampedusa.
Back in October, when I covered the Lampedusa tragedy, I wrote about the urgency of a feminist analysis on the gender specific aspect of mass death of women at sea. I pointed to the discrepancy between casualty figures of men and women. I’ve also written about how rape culture manifests in the migrant/ refugee experience of undocumented people who are unable to report their abuse and who are left with no legal recourse to obtain justice. So today, when I read about this trial, I was mostly interested in the context of these rapes and the ongoing manifestations of torture and abuse of migrant women, mostly from Africa.
When I approached this today, I immediately tried to find more background information behind this tidbit: Muhidin was the director of the detention facility in Libya. In my research, I came across this previously reported item at Al Jazeera, Lampedusa boat victims raped and tortured
Dozens of the people who were on the boat that sank near the Italian coast last month were raped and tortured in Libya before starting their journey, Italian police said.
The police revelation on Friday came after they announced the detention of Mouhamud Elmi Muhidin, a Somali citizen, who is believed to be the alleged organiser behind the smugglers’ ship packed with migrants that sank off the coast of a southern Italian island, killing more than 365 migrants.
According to migrants’ testimony, the 20 women in the group were repeatedly raped and offered to Libyan visitors “as if they were a cup of tea”.
Muhidin, Libyan militiamen and Sudanese traffickers all took part in the alleged assaults in a detention centre in Sabha in southwest Libya, that Italian prosecutor Maurizio Scalia likened to “a concentration camp”.
"They forced us to watch our men being tortured with various methods including batons, electric shocks to the feet. Whoever rebelled was tied up," read the testimony of a 17-year-old Eritrean girl in the investigation, Italian newspaper La Repubblica daily reported.
The migrants were forced to pay up to $3500 for their freedom and their onward journey to the Libyan coast and a boat to Italy.
"The women who could not pay were assaulted," the girl was quoted as saying in her criminal charge.
She also described in horrific detail her own sexual assault, saying that Muhidin was one of the three men who raped her.
"They threw me on the ground, held down my arms and covered my mouth, and poured gasoline on my head, which burned my scalp, skin and eyes," she said through a translator. "And then, not yet happy, the three took turns raping me."
Now we know three facts:
1) there were ongoing gang rapes of undocumented/ refugee women
2) Mouhamud Elmi Muhidin was the director of a detention camp
3) the camp is located in in Sabha, southwest Libya
It would be easy to confine these facts to Libya and gloss over a wider picture. “This happens to African migrants in African territories, hence, these events are outside the realm of the European Union’s responsibilities”. Except from this, documented in the research published by Ariane Chebel D’Appollonia in her book “Frontiers of Fear”:
Meanwhile, [in 2003] Italy bilaterally began the construction of a detention camp in northern Libya to facilitate deportations, and two additional camps in Kufra and Sabha were under discussion. Little information has filtered out regard-ing the funding of these facilities, The Italian government also provided Libya with training and equipment to asist in surveillance and management. In 2005 the Italian minister of interior reportedly pledged to give Libya €15 million over a three-year period for border control equipment.
Then there’s the extensive database at the Global Detention Project that documents the actual beginning of operations at the Sabha detention camp:
Sabha. In 2008, the government opened a new immigration detention centre in Sabha, at the edge of the Sahara, which is a key entry point for undocumented migrants entering Libya (Fortress Europe 2009). According to Fortress Europe, the compound is made up of three buildings, where a total of 1,000 people can be detained. Between 60 and 70 people are held in each of the facilities eight-by-eight meter rooms. Detainees reportedly sleep on the ground. Light, ventilation, and time spent outside the rooms are reportedly grossly insufficient (Fortress Europe 2009). Many migrants detained in this facility are caught in the desert and detained in immigration detention facilities close to the border before being transported in truck-loads of 100 or 200 people to the Sabha facility.
Apart from this pact, there is no formal agreement between the two countries [ED NOTE: the two countries being Italy and Libya] for the return of migrants entering Italy illegally from Libya (HRW 2006a, p. 117; Government of Italy 2007). Instead, Italy has supported Libya’s immigration control efforts through verbal agreements and the provision of “a program of technical assistance to the Libyan Authorities,” including in “a) Professional training; b) Assistance for the repatriation of illegal migrants to Third countries; c) Supply of goods and services; d) Setting up of reception centres for illegal migrants; e) Operational and investigative cooperation” (Government of Italy 2007, p. 16).
Human rights organisations and media reports have alleged that Italy provides significant funding to Libya for the construction of immigration detention facilities (Brothers 2007), and that “once the Italian government has expelled foreigners back to Libya, it also pays for charter flights for Libya to send the people home,” including some fifty charter flights that transported 5,668 people between August 2003 and December 2004[…]
Since 2004, the Council of the European Union has engaged Libya on the subject of immigration, providing assistance through training and monitoring equipment designed to strengthen its maritime borders and encourage coordinated sea control operations (HRW 2009, p. 31). The EU is currently negotiating a package worth tens of millions of euros with Libya (HRW 2009, p. 32; EU Business 2009a). According to HRW, the EU has proposed funding for the construction of accommodation centres for asylum seekers (€20 million) and for migration management projects on Libya’s southern border (€60 million). As of late 2009, an agreement had yet to be reached because Muammar Al-Gaddafi reportedly refuses to sign a commitment involving less than €300 million (HRW 2009, p.32-34; EU Business 2009).
The last available data I could find is from 2009. There is no further information about the funding of these detention facilities in the post Gaddafi regime. The funds for the construction and operation (including training and weapons) are well documented, though: the Italian government.
However, to dispel any notions around lack of European involvement in the administration of these facilities, there is this blood chilling research at Gabriele Del Grande’s blog (I highly recommend reading it in its totality, since what Del Grande chronicles further expands understanding of the topic)
In 2005, the former director of the Italian secret services (SISDe), Prefect Mario Mori, informed the Italian Parliament: “Undocumented migrants in Libya are caught like dogs” and put in centers so overcrowded that “policemen must wear a dust mask over their mouth because of the nauseating odours”. But the Ministry of Interior already knew it. Actually since 2004 the Italian police is training their Libyan colleagues in fighting immigration. And a few high officials of the Ministry of Interior, have visited the detention centers in Libya several times, including that in Kufrah. But silence was imposed over reality. The same hypocrisy has been shown by the European Union. In a report of 2004, the European Commission defined the conditions of detention camps in Libya “difficult” but in the end “acceptable in the light of the general context”. Three years later, in May 2007, a delegation of Frontex visited the south of Libya, including the prison of Kufrah, to lay the foundations for a future cooperation. Guess what they wrote: “We appreciated both the diversity as the vastness of the desert”.
I often refer to the European Union as a “project of Empire”. For an Empire to exist, it necessitates subjugated bodies against whom the Empire sets its policies and whose resources are drained to be concentrated at the Empire’s belly, away from the countries originating them. The Empire is always established in an “us vs. them” dichotomy, with “them” never allowed “in”, to belong. Further more, the Empire is established as a system of discipline for the subjugated. Torture, rape, degradation, enslavement: all of these and more have been historically used in its construction. What sets this EU apart from older Imperial projects is that nowadays, instead of resorting to old methods of conquer, similar results can be achieved through neoliberal policies: financial aid for the construction of facilities and training, immigration policies, the administration of “outsiders” through Frontex, the “rescue operations” to maintain a veneer of respectability in upholding the myth of human rights.
And yet, if you’ve read this far, I can only ask: who set up the necessary structures for these gang rapes to take place? Who trained the personnel? Who had an in depth overview of the degrading conditions of migrants being held in these detention camps? And above all, under the pretense of whose protection are these gang rapes and tortures allowed to occur?