Sometimes outrage just ain’t enough*

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In 2012 the world witnessed a series of tragic incidents of asylum seekers drowning after their unseaworthy boats capsized off the coast of Australia. Following these events, Australia’s parliamentarians spent six long hours debating a bill about asylum in the Federal Parliament. Having seen 90 people die and a further 130 people rescued on the high seas off the coast of Christmas Island, the debates were filled with emotion, concern for humanity and demands for human rights protections. I personally watched for several hours as politician after politician expressed heartfelt grief for the plight of asylum seekers who were trying to reach Australia by boat.

Fast forward to 2015 and the world reacted with shame and grief following the death by drowning of a young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, on the Turkish coast as he and his family attempted to reach Europe by boat. Once again there were demands for a more humane approach to refugees and the image of the young Aylan’s body washed up on the beach was claimed to be one of the most striking images of 2015. Countries like Canada pledged more resettlement places for Syrian refugees. Refugee advocates thought this might be a watershed moment for both the conflict in Syria and Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis.

Yet here we find ourselves again in 2017 expressing outrage, shock and grief over the revelation of migrants being subject to slave auctions in Libya. EU leaders are calling for action, others demanding a military force and an emergency evacuation operation has been agreed to.

Across these three very different contexts we have witnessed very similar reactions of outrage. In the case of Australia where just over five years ago the plight of people dying at sea moved some politicians to tears, it currently has one of the most draconian systems of offshore detention for asylum seekers. In Europe, tens of thousands of refugees who made the boat trip from Turkey over two years ago remain stranded in Greece and a planned relocation scheme for refugees remains stalled. At present a multitude of plans are being formulated to assist migrants and refugees stranded in Libya with protests against these conditions being held in many capital cities. But there are cautionary tales to be learnt from these earlier events.

Firstly, outrage, hand-wringing and expressions of shock and awe do not always lead to positive change. This could be because the news cycle moves on, but also that policies require time and good monitoring to be developed and implemented. Secondly, outrage can be distracting. There are copious words written about the current conditions for migrants and refugees in Libya but less attention on solutions. Finally, shifting the narrative after catalytic moments requires public support and dedication from advocates. Otherwise the world may unfortunately look back on Libya 2017 as yet another ‘never again’ moment.


* with apologies to Patty Smyth


Mixed messages along mixed migration routes

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Today I read this appeal from UNHCR asking for more funds to assist refugees taking irregular routes to Europe. But statistics indicate that most people taking the Central Mediterranean route – which is now the most prevalent irregular sea route to Europe – are overwhelmingly migrants (from countries such as Nigeria, Bangladesh etc). An earlier UNHCR appeal noted that they estimate there to be 900 refugees and asylum seekers in detention and 60 refugees have been referred for resettlement. While every case is significant these are relatively low numbers. So rather than focus on people in greatest need using this route, we have a bifurcated approach between refugees and migrants.

There has been a lot of necessary attention on the way the media uses the word ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ when describing the people who are taking irregular routes to Europe. I think most people understand the basic difference between a refugee and a migrant. But there has been less attention on the way international organisations employ labels to invoke need. See this screen grab from twitter that discusses the use of the term ‘non-Syrian’ which has been used to describe other groups reaching Greece across the Eastern Mediterranean route.


One of the issues we rarely talk about is competition between agencies for funds. The aim of any press release or funding appeal is to highlight how a particular agency or organisation is best placed to assist a target group of vulnerable people. But in the case of mixed flows of migrants and refugees how do agencies like UNHCR with its focus on refugees and IOM with its focus on migrants work together? According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in one of the above-mentioned press releases “We have urgent work to do in Libya and can only do it together”. But are separate agencies and separate appeals the best way to achieve this.

Despite launching a Mixed Migration Working Group for Libya in late 2016 , it would seem that a jointly coordinated approach is still in the making. This could partly be due to working modalities – many international organisations working on Libya in reality do so from neighbouring Tunisia (albeit due to security reasons) and with the Libya funding appeal only 28.4% covered competition for funds is real. However there are funds for migration, with the EU launching a EUR 90million programme for migrants in Libya only a few days ago. So now we see read lots of tweets, press releases and appeals about how best to address the situation inside Libya and across the Mediterranean that arguably shows the international community is not speaking with one voice on this issue.

This makes for a very confused message that reaches Libyan actors, affected governments and the general public. While it may be too much to ask for everyone to speak with one voice, agreement on a few key messages is surely not too hard an ask.

3 reasons for Mediterranean sea arrivals you won’t see reported

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There are a multitude of reports about the Central Mediterranean route, which I’ve also contributed to myself. But with so few people reporting from inside Libya, there are a few internal factors that some recent reports may have missed:

1. Good weather + Ramadan/Eid = surge of departures. It has been noted elsewhere (by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat over the Horn of Africa-Yemen route) that during Ramadan and Eid, many people try to take advantage of changing work hours (quieter mornings etc) and the fact that border posts may not be as heavily guarded during Ramadan. Combined with calm seas this may have been a reason for people to consider departing Libya during the past few months

2. It’s the economy stupid: Libya is facing a significant financial crisis, the currency is dropping and inflation is high. This affects migrant workers as much as ordinary Libyans who may in the past have enjoyed relatively high wages when paid in Libyan dinar. Today those dinar will not buy them the same amount of goods and, most importantly for migrant workers, not allow them to send money home. If the financial situation in Libya was to normalise then perhaps some migrants would prefer to go back to earning local salaries in Libya where there is demand for skilled labour, guards, cleaners.

3. Money, money, money: Linked to the point above, some migrant workers (for instance Bangladeshis) were paid by public institutions for services such as rubbish collection. Today those services are not operating and even if a worker was to be paid, getting money from the bank is near impossible. This in turns affects Libyans’ access to currency, with ‘hard currency’ even more scarce which is possibly why smuggling has become such a lucrative business for some.

Of course there are other external reasons, rescue at sea being a key one, but without the full picture any interventions to address smuggling and trafficking will be misaligned. The overarching security situation, financial stability and political dynamics affect all people inside Libya including migrants and refugees.