North Africa, West Asia

The rogue general and the migrant ‘massacre’ on the Mediterranean

Pressure on Europe as asylum-seekers in Libya risk everything to reach safety in Italy while the EU looks the other way.

Hans Lucht
8 June 2014

A group of migrants stand outside the Prati di Caprara Camp in Bologna. The Italian government funds set to deal with the "North Africa" emergency are said to be running out. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.

In the migrant ghetto of Abu Salim in Tripoli, Libya, a group of about 80 Eritrean asylum-seekers live in the ground floor of an uncompleted house. It’s a hostile and dangerous environment, and everybody wants to escape to Europe.

One man has an open wound from scabies that has developed into heavy damage to the skin. He’s holding his arm in pain; blood is running on to the floor of the dark and musty room where they sleep 10 people on the ground. Like his friends, he has fled military service in Eritrea and is now a wanted man in his home country. He is only waiting for the weather to improve so that he can leave for Europe.

“We can’t stay here, not even for five minutes – it’s a dog’s life”, his friend told me during recent ethnographic fieldwork among African migrants and asylum-seekers in Tripoli.

It’s summer in Libya and high season for one of the most dramatic and dangerous expressions of the deepening inequality between lives in Europe and lives in Africa, as the boats from Africa and Asia arrive in Italy. A few weeks ago yet another boat went down off the Libyan coast with 40 people drowning and 40 people still missing, and the day after another boat capsized south of Lampedusa claiming at least 17 dead in a recurring tragedy condemned by Pope Francis as a ‘shameful massacre’.

The numbers arriving in Italy are 10 times higher than last year in what the Italian government has called a ‘biblical exodus’ from north Africa. The numbers Italy has rescued at sea are now above 40,000 people, and could surpass the numbers recorded during the Arab Spring in 2011 when 62,000 reached Italy.

Unfortunately, the pressure on Italy’s sea borders is not likely to decrease. Ex-general Khalifa Hifter – the renegade general disowned and humiliated by colonel Gaddafi and then given political asylum and backing in the US – threatens to throw Libya further into anarchy with his all-out war against the Islamists in Benghazi and Derna.

The EU and the US more or less publicly support the general and fight against ‘the foreign terrorists’. It appears that the west has grown disillusioned with the messiness of the Arab Spring and now longs for another military dictator that can guarantee stability and business as usual in one of Africa’s biggest oil producers. The question is if the EU and the US are ready to help the thousands of refugees that may have to escape the escalating conflict or whether that will be left, again, to Egypt and Tunisia and to a much lesser extent, Italy.

The worsening conditions in Libya leave asylum-seekers with little choice but to risk their lives, a young Eritrean woman explained. As security in Libya is falling apart and attacks on African migrants happen daily, they are too afraid even to sleep at night.

“They can come in at any time and steal from us; they just break in the door and take phones and money. Every night there’s shooting and bombs. We fear for our lives here”.

Though the Libyan navy is in better condition than the Libyan army, it does not have enough ships, equipment or training to stop the asylum-seekers even if it patrolled the 1,800 kilometers long coastline around the clock. Currently the navy has no radar monitoring or other means of surveillance at its disposal. But instead of looking to Libya to police its borders, navy spokesperson colonel Ayob Ghassem told me, Europe should remember its own moral and historical responsibility in the countries where the migrants come from, and help develop them.

“Libya is paying the price for illegal immigration – more than we can afford,“ he said, “But Europe should ask itself: Why are we even arresting them? As long as they are going to Europe, and not coming back, is it still in our interest to stop them?”

Let’s not jump to the conclusion that Libya’s more than one million migrants all want to come to Europe, as some Italian officials claim. That is not the case and never has been the case. To most Asian and African migrants, Libya is a labour destination, and they are not willing to risk their lives to reach a crisis-stricken Europe.

But there are people here – Eritreans, Somalis, Syrians – that have no choice but to leave their homes, and Europe cannot afford to let them perish on the Mediterranean. As the first article of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.”

The surge in arrivals is putting pressure on the Italian government, and the centre-right parties are calling for a revision of Italy’s expensive but life-saving Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) operation, set up in the wake of the Lampedusa disaster in October of last year when more than 350 people died. The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has accused Europe of hypocrisy in the face of human suffering. The EU “can’t save governments and banks and then let mothers and children die,” he said.

Yet, Mr. Renzi may find it hard to convince Germany and France, who received respectively 127,000 and 65,000 asylum-seekers in 2013, that Italy should have special treatment. As the recent European elections showed, anti-immigrant agendas have strong public backing and there appears to be a worrying acceptance that migrant deaths are a necessary evil, even a warrant of our continued prosperity.

Upon a visit to a Libyan migrant prison, I came across a young woman from Eritrea with a three-weeks-old baby boy in her arms. She was two months pregnant when she fled Eritrea, but was apprehended at sea and sent back to Libya. The boy, her first child, was born in the centre. As she went in to labour the prison guards, much to their dismay, had to drive her around in their private cars in the middle of the night in order to find a hospital that would receive her, because in Libya a pregnant woman without a husband will often be refused medical assistance. 

The boy is healthy and smiling, but the overcrowded prison is not a place to raise a child, she says. Therefore she has decided to try for Europe again. “The conditions here are driving us back into the boats”, she says, as she rocks the baby in her arms.

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