Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear about the use of child soldiers in conflicts abroad. This immediately conjures up images of children holding AK-47s, with the firearms often being bigger than the shooters. Rightfully so, international governing bodies and Western democracies are quick to denounce the use of child soldiers. However, there is a similar problem occurring closer to home. Though we may not generally associate child soldiers with criminal gangs, they are fundamentally the same. We do not have to look to failed states to see that children everywhere are vulnerable to lives of violence and crime.
This April, Rwandans mourned the 25th anniversary of the country’s genocide. As part of the larger Rwandan civil war, the genocide itself lasted 100 days and resulted in the murders of almost 1,000,000 Rwandans, constituting 70% of the country’s Tutsi population. The genocide proved to be a highly organized and systematic process of ethnic extermination. For 100 days, the world stood by silently and the international community failed to establish peace.
25 years later, Rwanda is on a better path. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized the capital and effectively ended the genocide and civil war in 1994, a national government was installed under the leadership of the RPF. For 20 of the past 25 years, rebel leader-turned-president Paul Kagame has been leading Rwanda’s political reform. Despite being under the leadership of a multi-term president who has been known to be one of the most merciless in Africa, Rwanda seems to be prospering. The country is also healing from its past, as it is successfully achieving economic and social development.
As a result of the country’s trauma, art has emerged as a unique factor in the healing process. Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival was established in 2015 with the mission of promoting civic dialogue through the arts. Essentially, the festival seeks to promote the nation’s healing by fostering participation from global artists and local citizens. A participant of Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival affirmed, “‘When language fails us, art expresses what we feel.’” When there are few words to describe the horrors of genocide, the community turns to art as a means of conveying their deepest, unfiltered emotions.
Art is crucial to keeping the memory of the past alive. Through artistic expression, stories and experiences are told and retold so that the world does not forget the gravity of the events that occurred 25 years ago. In this way, art sheds a light on the darkness of tragedy and perpetuates those memories while also allowing healing. It is both a remembrance of the victims as well as a haunting reminder of the reality and persisting threat of horrendous war crimes.
In the years since the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations (U.N.) has created the Office on the Prevention of Genocide to protect citizens of a nation when their government fails to do so. This U.N. office attempts to raise awareness by providing the definitions of war crimes as well as prevention and response methods. In 2012, the United States created its own interagency board that emphasizes war crimes as its highest concern.
This April also marks the 27th anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo, which signaled the beginning of the Bosnian War. Like Rwanda, the war itself is considered an international peace-keeping failure, as the conflict was marred by numerous war crimes and human rights abuses. Most notably, however, was the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. The massacre was one of the worst atrocities witnessed on European soil since World War Two, with more than 8,000 ethnic Bosniak Muslims killed in what was supposed to be a U.N. safe zone. But it all began in Sarajevo.
At the start of the Siege, Sarajevo was bombarded by mortar shells and other artillery fire. As a result, the mortars left behind countless craters. Today, 200 mortar scars on city roads have been maintained, filled with resin, and preserved. The Sarajevo Roses are Bosnia’s unique memorials in remembrance to the Siege and the subsequent war that engulfed the country. Scattered throughout the city streets and sidewalks, the Roses seem to mimic intrusive weeds that sprout out of the cracks in the pavement. They serve as a constant reminder—to pedestrians and on-lookers—that merely 27 years ago, the city was besieged by mortar fire and reduced to rubble.
One does not have to walk through a museum or a national monument to pay respect to the war—the Roses are ever-present beneath pedestrians’ feet. Because of the numerous craters throughout the city, it becomes difficult to forget what caused them. To international observers, the Roses should not only signify the start of the Bosnian War, but also the inhumanities that continued well after the shelling of the capital. Though Sarajevo has since transformed itself into the economic hub of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Roses highlight that the wounds of past transgressions are still visible. We can attempt to heal them, but for the sake of the future, we can never forget.
Interestingly enough, the Cambodian Genocide and Armenian Genocide also commemorate their 44th and 104th anniversaries, respectively, in April. Similarly to Rwanda and Sarajevo, both the Cambodian and Armenian communities have used art to remember their victims and preserve the memory of past atrocities. Art is a powerful means of engaging with wounds from the past. It allows us to process our emotions in a creative manner, as not all feelings can be easily verbalized. The art of healing is two-fold; it reconciles the souls of survivors and begs remembrance from witnesses. Despite the horrors witnessed during war, countries have healed from their dark pasts through artistic expression and have also taken the global initiative to ensure that such atrocities are not committed again.
Of the current approximate half a million refugees in Libya, 60% are from Sub-Saharan countries, 32% from North African nations, and 7% from Eastern and Middle Eastern countries. Most are trying to flee from economic or political instability towards Europe. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) found that human traffickers, militias, Libyan Coast guard, police, and other groups have worked with Libyan officials to bring migrants into detention centers owned by the Libyan Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM). In 2017 alone, 20,000 migrants were brought into detention centers, where their rights are routinely violated. Migrants have no access to legal resources in these centers, which are often run by armed militias. The detention centers have been described as “generally inhumane, falling far short of international human rights standards.” But how did the situation get this bad, and how can it be resolved?
The EU shares a portion of the blame for the state of migrants in Libya. In 2017, the EU and the Libyan government brokered the “Memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the fields of development, the fight against illegal immigration, human trafficking and fuel smuggling and on reinforcing the security of borders between the State of Libya and the Italian Republic” in order to stem the flow of refugees that were using Libya as a gateway to Europe during the 2016 refugee crisis. The agreement between parties gave millions of euros to the Libyan coast guard to capture seafaring refugees en route to Europe in order to bring them back to Libya. It also recognized the authority of the DCIM detention centers, where the migrants are sent to after returning, while failing to recognize the need for legal representation. Even the requirement of observation by human rights organization or UN bodies is ignored. According to Anja Palm, a researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, what is most worrisome about the memorandum is that it “seem[s] to voluntarily ignore all dissimilarity in the legal status of people on the move, assimilating all of them in the undifferentiated category of illegal migrants.” This willful ignorance of distinctions among migrants criminalizes all forms of migration rather than distinguishing circumstances that would normally qualify certain individuals or families for refugee status.
As a result, the conditions are deplorable. Eye witness accounts speak of “going days without food and drinking toilet water to survive” and how “infected detainees are locked with others in a dark room and [had] been repeatedly left without tuberculosis medication.” Even more shocking, open air slave auctions have been documented in the country. Multiple eye witness accounts report migrants being sold as slaves in markets, with some accusing the DCIM centers themselves of being home to the slave auctions. Recently, over 50 non-profit organizations have signed an open letter calling on Europe to take stock of the rampant loss of life and dignity in Libya, stating, “EU leaders have allowed themselves to become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes.” The European Union is an accomplice to the human rights violations that have been enumerated.
The harm being done to human lives is egregious. Yet, the European Union has valid reasons to seek ways to reduce immigration levels. With the threat of migrants coming into Europe often being blown out of proportion in general media, populists and far-right politicians have capitalized on the flow of migrants into Europe. More liberal governments have been toppled by far right governments in countries such as Italy, Hungary, and Poland by stoking fears around mass immigration. Populist politicians, such as Austria’s Herbert Kickl, are openly calling for camps that “concentrate people in the asylum process in one place,” evoking a 1930’s mentality towards “undesirables.” According to Pew Research Center, a majority of Europeans support taking in refugees, yet disapprove of EU policies towards immigration. In addition, a 2017 study conducted by Pew Research shows that Europeans want their national governments, not the Union, to craft policy concerning refugees. Therefore, while it might be morally advisable, open-border policies will drive people further into the arms of populists.
So, what can be done? Currently, persons fleeing towards Europe are being turned around in the Mediterranean and sent back to Libya regardless of whether or not they have valid reasons for fleeing their country of origin. When they get to Libya, individuals are usually stripped of their documents and put in detainment camps. Legalizing migration channels would begin to stabilize the migration situation by incentivizing refugees against illegally crossing, establishing readmission agreements with countries of origin, and debilitating the smuggling apparatus in place. The European Union should establish migration agreements with countries that have seen a large number of their citizens flee to Europe. This can be done on a lottery basis with any person seeking entrance being eligible to enroll, provided they have not previously tried to illegally enter. If they have previously tried to illegally enter, they would be barred from joining the lottery process for a certain number of years. The imposition of a temporary exclusion from the Visa lottery would disincentivize many people from trying to enter illegally, while not punishing those who have already tried to do so for the rest of their lives.
These types of agreements are called Mobility Partnerships, and according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, “So far, only Tunisia and Morocco among North African countries have mobility partnerships with the EU. No mobility partnership has been signed with any sub-Saharan countries.” As mobility partnerships are a thorny issue, open debates should take place regarding what percentage should be given visas. Meanwhile, this policy could solve pressing issues. People are entering whether or not there are migration channels in place. Migrants brave the brutal conditions that smugglers impose on them without guarantee of success because there is no other way to do it. Allowing some migrants to enter through a lottery system would offer another option. Furthermore, the outcome of fewer people using smuggling routes would raise the price that smugglers demand for the journey. This would prevent those who would have deemed the previous fare acceptable and paid it from paying the new fare.
In addition, the EU should establish Readmission Agreements which are agreements between parties that work to “facilitate the return of people residing irregularly in a country to their country of origin or to a country of transit.” These agreements are a necessary aspect of mobility partnerships. If the EU allows for a certain percentage of a nation’s citizens to receive visas, those nations must accept those who have sought to enter into Europe unlawfully back into their countries. This benefits the EU, as those who are trying to enter illegally are sent back to their home countries. Readmission agreements also benefit nations that agree to it, as their citizens can enter the Visa lottery in return.
With this framework set in place, order can begin to be created and migrants can be protected. The European Union faces a dire need to act on this matter. The EU has been accused of knowingly allowing the abuse of migrants to happen. The memorandum that was signed between the parties was an act of allowing willful ignorance taking place in order to decrease the influx of migrants. Amnesty International testified that “no independent monitoring or accountability mechanism has been established either by Italy or by the EU to ensure that the resources provided to the Libyan authorities…are not contributing to human rights violations and abuses.” If the European Union does not want to see itself as complicit, it should take hardline action against Libyan policies and ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected. To do nothing in the face of such freely available information would be to directly participate in the torture, slave trading, and murder of innocent people.