Thursday, May 30

Fighting the Good Fight & Celebrating Together — Post-holiday Ruminations on Migrant Prisons

Inflatable boat in the Mediterranean carrying migrants bound for Europe. U.S. navy photo by Chief Information Systems Technician Wesley R. Dickey/Released.

by Elena Marcheschi

I consider myself fortunate that the recent holidays brought with them gratifying moments of communal joy and wellbeing.  At the same time, the season provided plenty of reminders of old and new forms of human oppression.  Oppressive practices have always been invariably contested by other human actors, whether in ancient or modern garb, engaged in a dialectical dance of resistance and fought-for liberation.  Themes such as these have haunted humanity’s holidays for a very long time.

It began with the burning candles of an early 2021 Hanukkah, celebrated as a commemoration of the successful resistance of the Jewish people against their Hellenized adversaries in the revolt of the Maccabees. “The story of Hanukkah tells us that when we act together, a seemingly powerless, small group of people can actually overcome seemingly intractable adversities,” reminded Cara Alhadeff, Executive Director of the environmental justice organization Jews of the Earth (JOTE). 

These thoughts persisted through the last day of Hanukkah, when the Dec 6 issue of the New Yorker published an article by the American investigative reporter Ian Urbina, titled The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe,” In the exposé, Urbina wrote about the existence of off-shore secret migrant detention centers in Libya and other countries, funded by wealthy nations such as the United States and, in this case, by the EU with the direct involvement of Italy. For years, many advocates in Europe and across the world have been demanding an end to these inhumane practices.

The existence of such detention centers is an outgrowth of geopolitical policies called “externalization of migration controls,” whose purpose is to stem migration flows before they reach the sponsoring wealthier nations’ borders. Externalization, also called off-shoring, implicates the legal and human rights of migrants in a multitude of ways. In many cases, it has long had the effect of keeping marginalized world migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and hopeful immigrants-to-be (referred to throughout this piece as “migrants,” as a specific individual’s legal status in these types of cases has generally not yet been legitimately vetted or legally determined) in settings of indefinite and oppressive detention. These are places of great suffering, where innocent people are often unjustly criminalized, lose contact with their families and are sometimes violently killed, away from the view of those who wish not to see what their money is buying. 

Dual Realities of Forced Isolation

As the days of December 2021 grew shorter, related themes continued to surface, as new concerns about COVID-19 continued to soar. Increasing infections and deaths due to the highly transmissible Omicron mutation brought fears of confinement and isolation back into the holiday season. After two of our dear friends became ill with Covid, we canceled the Christmas Eve gathering we’d planned with them and a small number of our other fully-vaccinated family and friends. A Christmas Eve cocktail party on Zoom took its place and brought smiles to our faces. We also sent regrets for another planned family gathering, after discovering that some, who shall stay dear to us but who sadly are unvaccinated anti-vaxxers, would be in attendance.

When I considered the secret migrant prisons the Urbina article had exposed, it shamed my self-absorbed complaints about the need to temporarily self-distance and avoid unsafe gatherings to avoid further transmission. It’s true that Christmas and other seasonal holidays often provide a much-needed pause from the grind of everyday life, shifting focus onto fellowship, renewal, joy and the hope that we can work to create a better future in the new year. But there are other ways for some of us to remain connected with family and friends, without endangering others and ourselves. The reminder that there are men and women unjustly imprisoned in unsafe and unbearable conditions and denied contact with loved ones altogether put things into perspective and made it easier to resist the temptation.

A Christmas message to expose and resist injustice

Then Christmas Day 2021 came and brought with it its own related themes, with embedded stories of the struggles for liberation against Roman occupation at the time of the birth of Jesus. In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, African-American theologian Howard Thurman depicted the life of Jesus as prompting humanity to become empowered from within in the face of oppression. 

These concepts brought back disturbing details from the New Yorker article about migrants imprisoned in Libya. Through the life and death of one such migrant, a young man from sub-Saharan Africa named Aliou Candé, Urbina vividly depicted what happens in such hellish places.

Aliou Candé was a shy 28-year-old man from a remote part of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. He, his wife, and their three young children lived on a farm in his home village of Sintcham Demba Gaira, where they grew cassavas, yams and mangoes. His farm was in severe trouble. Climate change was devastating the crops, bringing longer droughts that were followed by harder rains and severe flooding. His family was going hungry.

They were not alone. The World Bank’s 2021 Groundswell Report on Climate Change has identified sub-Saharan Africa as the most vulnerable region to the effects of climate change, due to desertification, fragile coastlines and the population’s dependence on agriculture. Up to 86 million sub-Saharan people are projected to move within national borders in the coming years. 

At moments like these we ought to remind ourselves that richer countries, including the U. S., Canada, Japan and much of western Europe account for just 12 percent of the global population today but are responsible for 50 percent of all historical greenhouse gas emissions. One of the biggest debates at the 2021 United Nations climate summit in Glasgow was whether — and how — the world’s wealthiest nations, which are disproportionately responsible for global warming to date, should compensate poorer nations for the damages caused by rising temperatures.

What’s happening in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere around the world makes it clear that this responsibility for climate justice is being shirked. Of course, the great displacements and migrations that we see across our world today are not only the foreseeable consequence of failure to act on climate change.  At the root of the problem are nations and economic interests that exert power over others through military, economic and political control, draining resources from such regions as they do so and leaving human suffering behind. This is the world we live in today, the world that drives the flow of migrants such as Aliou Candé across the globe.

Journeys of Peril for Aliou Candé and other Migrants

As I thought more about Aliou Candé’s fate over the weekend of Christmas 2021, related events were simultaneously taking place in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. At least 16 migrants died in Greek waters on Christmas Day 2021, when their boat capsized. This added to the deaths that were documented earlier during Christmas week in the Aegean Sea, where at least 30 migrants died and dozens remained unaccounted for. The Greek Coast Guard, who responded to the disaster, put the blame on Turkish sea patrols for failing to capture the migrants. 70 migrants had also drowned off the coast of Libya during the same period. These episodes came only a month after 27 migrants died attempting to cross the English Channel from France. 

The Sea-Watch 3 patrolling the central Mediterranean search and rescue area. Photo by Chris Grodotzki /, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before Aliou Candé set off on his journey, some of his brothers had already made the trip through the Sahara, managing to reach Spain and Italy and earning money to help their families.  Many from their part of the world and elsewhere encounter violent racism along their migration routes and even upon arrival at their destination of choice, should they succeed in avoiding the barriers that are set up to stop them. 

Candé decided to follow his brothers and do the same to try to support his own family. After a journey of many months, he arrived in Tripoli, Libya, hoping to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. After much effort, he finally secured a place on a rubber dinghy loaded with more than 100 other migrants, but was intercepted at sea 70 miles from Tripoli on February 4, 2021 by the Libyan Coast Guard. Once captured, Candé and the other 100 or so migrants aboard his boat were delivered to a detention camp called Al-Mabani, one of many notorious facilities in Libya where the United Nations and others have documented systemic torture, rape, ransom extortion, forced labor and death. 

Closer to home, the holidays seemed to be in retreat once Christmas had passed, and even New Year’s Eve came and went relatively quietly here. A lot was happening elsewhere, however. On the last day of 2021, the NGO migrant rescue ship Sea Watch 3 arrived in the port of Pozzallo, Sicily, with 440 rescued migrants on board. These migrants, mostly from Africa and including women and young children, had been rescued the week before Christmas in five separate rescue operations. They included around 200 minors, most of them unaccompanied, and the rescue ship had been at sea since Christmas Eve. 

A few days earlier, on Tuesday, December 28, Italy had also allowed a Geo Barents vessel run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to disembark in the Sicilian port of Augusta. That ship, with more than 550 mainly African migrants, including 174 minors and a woman who was then 8-months pregnant, had carried out eight separate rescues off the coast of Libya over the preceding 11 days.

Three Kings, La Befana, and homicide inside a Libyan prison camp

Not long after these events in the Mediterranean, the Feast of the Epiphany, La Fiesta de los Reyes Magos, the Three Kings dawned on January 6, 2021, finally putting an end to the twelve days of Christmas. The Wise Men, the Magi who brought gifts from afar, declared that Jesus, not Herod, was the rightful King of the Jews, in essence challenging Herod’s political legitimacy and Rome’s occupation of Palestine and the province of Judea. Jesus himself, as many see it, traveled a revolutionary path for the rest of his life on earth, until Herod had him executed on a cross for political sedition.

On the previous night of January 5th, the thematic progression had taken a matriarchal path, with the appearance on Epiphany Eve of an old woman, La Befana, known to bring gifts to Italian children and believed by some to be a witch.  According to the legend, La Befana had at first refused to join the Wise Men on their journey to pay homage to the newborn, although it’s more likely they never bothered to ask her to go along. Casting off any unwanted ties that might bind, Befana set out on her own to bring gifts to the infant child, and left gifts for other children as she went along seeking the little town of Bethlehem across the Mediterranean.

Back in Libya and upon his capture in early 2021, Aliou Candé arrived at the Libyan prison at 3:00 a.m. on the 5th of February. Ian Urbina learned that Candé and others were herded inside Cell No 4, where about 200 migrants were already being held. It was so crowded that it was near impossible to find anywhere to sit on the ground without the danger of being trampled. Overhead fluorescent lights were kept on all night. Birds nested in the rafters, their feathers and droppings falling from above. The prison was controlled by heavily armed militia who patrolled the hallways.

As Urbina’s investigation further uncovered, “about 1,500 migrants, men, women and children, were held [at the prison], in eight cells, segregated by gender. There was only one toilet for every hundred people, and Candé often had to urinate in a water bottle. Migrants slept on thin floor pads; there weren’t enough to go around, so people took turns – one lay down during the day, the other at night. Twice a day, they were marched, single file, into the courtyard, where they were forbidden to look up at the sky or talk.”

No one beyond the walls of the prison knew that Candé had been captured and brought there. He hadn’t been charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a lawyer. He had no idea how long he’d be detained.

Other migrants interviewed by Urbina “spoke of a special room where [they] were sometimes beaten while hung upside down from ceiling beams. The guards offered migrants their freedom for a fee of twenty-five hundred Libyan dinars – about five hundred dollars. During meals, the guards walked around with cell phones, allowing detainees to call relatives who could pay. But Candé’s family couldn’t afford such a ransom. One of the migrants who had been imprisoned with Candé shared with Urbina the audio message that Candé recorded on a mobile phone secreted into the jail where he made a final plea to his family to send the ransom he needed to be set free.”

Far from Libya’s shore, the holiday season seemed finally to be over by the second week of January 2022. A few days later, however, on the third Monday of January 2022 and as if to round the circle, the recurring themes of oppression, resistance and liberation returned on the occasion of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. This commemorative holiday is anchored, by virtue of the aspirational message of Dr. King’s life and the movements that he was a part of, in the struggle for liberation from racism in all its forms. In the summation of his actions, Dr. King made it clear that the struggle is one best viewed through the lens of race-class analysis and practice. Thinking about it opened the door again to reflection on the life and death of Aliou Candé.

In the second month of Candé’s detention in Libya, a fight broke out inside his cell between some migrants who wanted to try and escape and others who considered it to be too dangerous. As Urbina reported in an interview with NPR radio, “the guards, who were watching, filming and cheering, ultimately opened fire on the inmates. Aliou Candé, who had tried to hide in a bathroom, was shot in the neck and died shortly after. 

As reported by France 24, a French state-owned international news television network based in Paris, Aliou Candé was buried at the Bir al-Osta Milad migrant cemetery in Tripoli. The NGO Outlaw Ocean Project’s team visited the site, where it is estimated that many migrants who die in Libya are buried, and recorded it with a drone. The images revealed “thousands of graves, many unmarked, almost all rough and apparently hastily constructed.” 

EU Complicity in Abuses in Libya

The EU made Aliou Candé’s capture possible, through the surveillance information collected by its border agency, Frontex, shared with Italy’s rescue coordination center in Rome and ultimately provided as real-time information to Libya about migrants at sea trying to make it into Europe. 

Urbina and others have charted in detail the ways in which EU money is being funneled to pay for migrant capture and detention in off-shore locations. His research revealed that the EU, its agencies and member countries have not only been funding command centers for the Libyan Coast Guard charged with executing these interceptions. They’ve also provided Italian built state-of-the art cutters, speedboats, land cruisers, radios, satellite phones, plane and drone surveillance and other tracking information.

In addition, the Italian government, with the support of the EU, had earlier successfully petitioned the U.N. to allow the Libyan Coast Guard to extend its jurisdiction into international waters nearly 100 miles beyond Libya’s shores, more than half-way to the Italian coast, to maximize the interception of migrants. Italy as well as France, both with borders on the Mediterranean, are among the major players in this macabre dance in the Mediterranean, pitting Libya’s Coast Guard vessels against NGO and other rescue ships trying to get to the migrants first.

Governmental policies such as these are by no means limited to the EU’s contracts with Libya, which, ironically, was an Italian North African colony between 1911 and 1943. The EU, for example, also pays nearly $1 billion to Turkey to ensure only a minimal number of people can seek asylum in Europe. Countries in Eastern Europe and elsewhere are also the recipients of migration control deals with the EU. Others do much the same or worse, such as Australia in its so-called “Pacific Solution” policies and, of course, the United States. 

The United States has long set an egregious standard in its offshoring and externalization activities, in recent years most notably with countries south of the border, such as Guatemala. This is despite the fact that such measures to intercept and divert migrants from reaching the U.S. also repeatedly result in grave violations of human rights, including the right of asylum under both international and U.S. law. Such U.S. activities go back in time to long before the refusal of safety in the late 1930s and WWII period to tens of thousands Jewish children and adult refugees, under the pretext of national security. 

The role of white supremacy and racism in oppressing migrants

The historically inhumane immigration practices on the part of the U.S. at its borders and within have involved extended detentions, family separations, deportation, criminalization of humanitarian aid provision, and have resulted in untold other sufferings, including death, to migrants, the vast majority of whom are people of color.

Under the Trump administration, “the U.S. implemented the Remain-in-Mexico Program, the Asylum Cooperative Agreements, as well as summary expulsion under a specious public health rationale, while also continuing to pressure its southern neighbors to thwart asylum seekers.” Some of these policies unfortunately still persist today under the Biden Administration. More recently, the U.S. intercepted and pushed back countless Haitian asylum seekers fleeing a brutal dictatorship. 

In the EU, racism is playing a similar role in the execution of its externalization of migration controls policies, which fall most heavily on migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Through the life of Aliou Candé we can see how racism remains a key weapon employed by powerful interests around the world, intentionally and at times perhaps unintentionally, to maintain race-class exploitation of the greater part of humanity, a profitable venture for the few who benefit from it.

There is a strong world-wide movement working together to resist and alter these practices.  It is dedicated to promoting migration policies based on tolerance and solidarity between people whose interests are intertwined, encompassing anti-racist principles, gender-equality and shared responsibility in order to solve the problems that have been created. These movements are demanding that migration be viewed as a human rights issue that’s been neglected for too long. They insist that actors who have played a great part in creating the problems leading to the dislocation and migration of millions of human beings around the world must take account of and their fair share of responsibility for repairing the harm done. They all seek an end to the preventable deaths of people like Aliou Candé.

Aliou Candé’s courage and determination to migrate in some ways reminded me of my own family members, who decided they had no choice but to leave Italy at the turn of the 20th Century and go to America.  Among them was my 15-year-old grandfather Dante, who arrived in the U.S.  on January 17, 1912, exactly 110 years to the day before the holiday we have set aside to honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr., celebrated this year on January 17, 2022.

My grandfather was traveling to join his father, older brother and others from his village to find work in the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. What had driven them to do so was the collapse of Italian wheat prices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when America flooded the world market with cheap grain. Poor peasant farmers such as those in my family could no longer make a living and provide for their families. Like so many others then and now, migration was the option they felt compelled to take. 

What my family members found upon arrival (unlike Aliou Candé they were not hunted down and prevented from arriving) was a set of very difficult conditions, but they were not met by the racist barriers that still oppress migrants who are of African descent and of people of color today. The entrenched survival of structural racism in the U.S. reveals harsher consequences for today’s migrants than for white Europeans of years past for the same exact offense of unauthorized entry, which was remarkably common up to the mid 20th century. While I am led to believe that my family members were documented, from the early 1900s through the 1960s millions of predominantly white persons entered the U.S. unlawfully, but faced virtually no threat of apprehension or deportation.  

Our holidays as reminders of who we are and who we want to be

When we take a good look at the nature of the holidays people choose to celebrate, from Christmas to the Fourth of July, from International Women’s Day to Juneteenth and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we’re reminded that people everywhere and at all times have tried to resist human oppression and set themselves free. Too often, unfortunately, that  resistance has been limited to one’s own parochial self-interest and has not included that of others. Racism, in this way, has played a divisive role in limiting our human progress, and its consequences, most of them intended, continue to delay the freedom of all of humanity.

Racism replicates itself through entrenched economic and social systems that, for some, remain hidden in plain sight. It’s entangled with other tools of oppression that are used to divide us from one another, by religion, by nationality and nativism, by gender, by sexual identity and preference, by ableism, ageism and the like. And although we understandably want to and should celebrate our human differences and take justifiable pride in the achievements of our own cultures of origin, if we want a better world in which to live and prosper, we must teach ourselves how to do so without a hierarchy of dominant and non-dominant human categorizations.

History teaches us that movements to end racism and other forms of oppression have always provided a gateway to human liberation. This realization makes it clear that our own freedom is bound up with the liberation of others, making it possible for us to create new intersectional movements that are able to take on the root sources of oppression in our own day. 

There always has been and always will be something more that needs to be done to advance our human rights, including protecting past achievements from recidivist attacks, many of which we are sadly witnessing at this moment. The need for engagement is all around us. We will all enjoy our holidays much more if we each do what we can to keep this good fight moving forward.  

1 Comment

  • Ann Lousin

    This is so true. My father came as a refugee in 1926. He walked across the footbridge at El Paso, TX, on Oct. 29, 1926, with one suitcase, the clothes on his back, his “papers”, and not even 100 words of English. He had been hounded out of his homeland in the Near East. All of us whose ancestors were refugees should step up. 24% of all Americans were born somewhere else. I’ll bet over half of us can’t say that all four grandparents were born here. And as climate change worsens, we must do something about those who can no longer live where they were born. We CANNOT turn our backs on them.

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