Ignoring COVID-19 cases at Libya migrant centres will have dire consequences for Europe ǀ View

In recent weeks, commentators in various media outlets have expressed concern about the risk of COVID-19 spreading to Libya, in particular to the detention centres where migrants attempting to pass through Libya to Europe are held. Of course, the issues around migration have been bubbling away in Europe for years. Long before COVID-19, migrants arriving in Europe have been screened for disease. The influx of migrants to Europe has provoked debate over whether the governments of European countries are obliged to let in refugees or preserve their citizens’ quality of life. COVID-19 is not the first international crisis to provoke such debates, but it is the most widespread and severe. A virus represents a different order of threat from any terrorist grouping, criminal network or other problems that have been discussed in the debate on migration. This virus will bring to a sharp and unavoidable point all of the political debates that have been raging in Europe about the migrant question.

The risks from COVID-19 spreading in Libya are numerous. Its ongoing civil war in has drastically reduced the capacity of the health and social services in the country to respond to or contain a major outbreak. The continuing fighting makes it extremely difficult for international or domestic organisations and healthcare workers to do their jobs. The damage to Libya’s public facilities – like its sanitation system, electrical grid, and hospitals – has further drastically reduced the country’s capacity to handle anything like the major outbreaks that have been seen elsewhere.

The situation in the migrant detention centres is even more acute. Extreme overcrowding, notably worse access to public facilities than the rest of Libya, poorly trained guards and staff, and limited access for healthcare professionals and NGOs, are the most obvious issues. These are combined with an already serious reality of malnourishment and general poor health among the migrants held in the centres, and a complete incapacity of the Libyan authorities, on either side of the conflict, to provide care for the migrants in any case. The detention centres in Libya would be probably the most catastrophic place for a possible outbreak to occur. With no capacity to quarantine or socially distance, to say nothing of the extremely limited testing capacity in Libya generally and the centres in particular, the virus would go unchecked. With the already dismal conditions and weakened state of many migrants, the death toll would be significantly higher than in nearly any other imaginable context where the virus could spread.

The real issue for Europe arises with the rescue of migrants from the Mediterranean after an outbreak has been confirmed in one or more of the detention centres. There has already been enormous controversy on the continent over the rescue of migrants adrift at sea, at both governmental and citizen level. The issue is one of the most divisive in European politics, and certainly long before COVID-19 had bitterly divided opinion in many countries who have received the bulk of all arrivals, in particular Italy and Greece.

What happens now if a privately-operated ship rescues a boatload (or more) of migrants and attempts to dock at an Italian port? After the passengers have been crammed together on-board for several days, it is certain that if even one of them has COVID-19, it will have spread to other migrants and probably the ship’s crew as well. Even if the risks are small, even if resources and controls are in place to prevent COVID-19 spreading from the arrivals to the general population, even if COVID-19 has already spread through Italy, the risk is still there. If even one person in Italy dies from a case of COVID-19 linked to the arrival of a ship carrying migrants, the government will be accused of failing to protect its citizens. Numbers, relative percentages of risk, and infection vectors are useless here. This problem is at the core of European politics. What choice will the Italian government make in this scenario? What are the obligations of the EU to the citizens of its member states? Both individual countries like Italy and the EU overall will need to strike the political balance between the needs of their citizens and the humanitarian obligation to provide shelter for refugees and migrants.

Is the government of Italy (or Greece or Spain, or the EU itself) obliged to devote already scarce resources in a time of pandemic to screening and caring for migrants? The NGOs and other organisations that bring migrants into Italian ports, occasionally in direct contravention of the government’s orders, are already the subjects of debate and criticism in Europe. These organisations could now be accused of worsening a public health crisis, even if it is only a small or statistically negligible increase. And again, statistics and figures are useless here. These debates cut through to the true nature of the relationship between a government and its citizens, and the answers are based on things far beyond numbers or scientific analysis.

I have used the Italian government as an example here, but this scenario and the associated political questions could apply to any government in Europe – and it applies most directly to the EU itself. The outbreak of COVID-19 in Libya – and specifically in the migrant detention centres – is a certainty, and indeed may very well have occurred already. The duty of the state to its citizens versus its duty to non-citizens has been debated for millennia in every part of the world. No easy or clear answers have been found. Now the EU must ask itself the same question; what is the duty of the EU to the citizens of the Union? This is a political debate, one that will shape the future of Europe. The EU would be best served by having it now, before the inevitable outbreak in Libya occurs.

  • Niall McGlynn studied International Relations and History at Leiden University and Trinity College Dublin. He is currently an independent scholar and policy professional based in Ireland.


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