By Nihal Zaroug
Tripoli, April 11
The small Italian island of Lampedusa has reportedly received over 35,000 refuges as a result of the . . .[restrict]Arab Spring in Tunisia and Libya.
The first wave of migrants arrived in mid-January, 2011, from Tunisia, fleeing the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution that saw the ousting of Ben Ali and which spiraled the country into deeper economic crisis and increased unemployment. Instability and lack of coastal control permitted Tunisian migrants, seeking better work opportunities, to arrive in their thousands on the 20-square kilometre island. At one point they outnumbered the local population of less than 6,000.
Arriving to Lampedusa alongside the Tunisian migrants were other nationals displaced by Tunisia’s revolution.
From Libya, the first boats carrying refugees arrived at the end of March 2011, just a few weeks after the February 17 Revolution started. The “boat people” exodus from Libya also coincided with the release of prisoners by Qaddafi. Italian foreign Minister Frattini claimed later that “there is proof Qaddafi gave the order to send thousands of desperate people on boats, in order to throw the island into chaos” as retribution for Italy’s role in NATO operations.
Many refugees fled Libya, fearing they would be targeted and accused of being mercenaries. Some Africans who fled Libya claim they were held by Qadaffi’s regime and abused. Afraid of remaining in Libya, and endure further mistreatment, they preferred to risk their lives for the chance to reach Europe. In April 2005, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that it was ”concerned at the treatment and deplorable living conditions of people held in camps in Libya”. Most fleeing Libya never made it to mainland Italy but instead were transferred to a refugee center in Sicily.
The last reported arrivals from Libya, on April 3 this year, were 48 refugees who survived the Libya-Italy crossing. Another ten did not; they drowned due to bad weather at sea. According to the survivors, six Somalis and four Eritreans were swept overboard shortly after they departed a port in Libya near the Tunisian border. Last month, a seven-metre boat intercepted by Italian coastguards had five dead onboard. Circumstance of their deaths were not known although 51 refugees were rescued on the stranded boat.
The tragic deaths of these ten refugees occurred on the same day that Italian Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri visited Tripoli to meet with her Libyan counterpart Fawzi Abdelal and other senior members of the Libyan government. They discussed security and more specifically the implementation of an anti-migration agreement. The agreement aims to tackle the migration problem by combatting criminal organisations that gain from exploiting vulnerable migrants. Italy offered to train Libyan police forces.
The agreement also takes into account the views of Italian Foreign Minister Maurizio Massari who last month during his visit to Libya, said solutions had to happen at the migrants’ country of origin. To help implement such solutions, Libya will resume co-operation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Under the former regime, the IOM had several ongoing missions aimed at enhancing Libyan capacities to better deal with migrants and create favorable conditions for voluntary return to countries of origin.
The Italian government has taken some drastic measures to stop refugee arriving on its shores, including agreeing to an undisclosed agreement with the former Libyan regime under the 2008 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. This gave it the “task of supervising migration and readmitting people returned by Italy”, according to UNHCR.
This agreement prompted the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to sanction Italy for sending back African migrants who had reached Italy via Libya. This landmark judgment which required Italy to compensate migrants was applied to the 2009 case of Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy. Despite being investigated by the ECHR for its return policy and before the court had passed its decision, Italy had on March 15, 2011, banned a boat from refueling in its territory. The vessel was believed to be carrying over 1,800 refugees of mixed nationality who had set out from Libya and claimed to be en route to Morocco.
The UNHCR said that the ruling, issued on February 23, 2012, set a precedent for other EU countries to uphold the principle that “obligates states not to forcibly return people to countries where they face persecution or serious harm”.
However, given the prominence of conservative political parties in Europe, there may be more states favouring a migrant return policy, and effectively ignoring the ECHR ruling. Increasing numbers of voters across Europe expect their governments to take a harder stance on illegal migration. Furthermore, EU austerity programs will likely reduce funding for migration programs.
Africans caught up in the limbo of the Arab Spring or living under harsh conditions in their home countries see Lampedusa as their chance for survival, a hope for a better life in Europe. Libya is the pathway to the life they dream of. Although, closer to North Africa than Europe, this seemingly quiet island has been severely burdened by the inundation of migrants. The Lampedusa immigrant reception center is only equipped to hold 850 people, prompting the Italian government to request an emergency rule to relocate the refugees across all EU member states. The EU denied the request, stating that Italy had to deal with the refugees influx itself, adding that France and Germany had many more asylum requests each year than Italy.
With summer approaching and favourable weather at sea, Italy fears it will witness further migrant arrivals that it simply cannot cope with. The porosity of Libyan borders has made it relatively easy to reach the coast and cross the Mediterranean Sea. With the lack of concentrated efforts and policing to quash organised crime and illegal border crossings, it appears that Italy will continue to bear the brunt of illegal immigration from North Africa.
If Libya can control it borders and decrease illegal migration, it will not only help Italy but also Malta. Similar to Italy, Malta’s proximity to Libya makes it an attractive destination for migrants and refugees. However, Malta is also ill equipped to deal with the influx of people arriving from Libya and had joined Italy in requesting for the emergency rule to relocate arrivals to other EU member states.
Both Prime Minister Al-Kib, and Interior Minister Abdelal have said that Libya alone cannot police EU’s borders. Al-Kib, went further by stating that Libya will not be a ”dumping ground” for migrants refused by EU states.
Pre-revolution efforts to reduce illegal migration in co-operation with Frontex (European Agency for the Management of the Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) were by some accounts successful. Lampedusa, reported a 94-percent decrease in migrant landings for the year 2009 up to mid 2010. Actions taken during that period to reduce migration have to be re-evaluated and improved, not just for the sake of Europe, but also for the sake of new Libya.
Libya cannot manage the migration problem alone, it does not have the know-how and infrastructure to cope with migrants. The Libyan Association for Relief and Aid has recently requested the UNHCR to find a solution to the over 1,000 refugees held at a Benghazi detention centre. In other cities in Libya, similar situations are playing out. With every passing day the number of migrants trying to make their way to Europe via Libya increases and, with this increase, organised crime networks grow stronger.
Qaddafi used border control as a bargaining tool, constantly reminding Europe that he indeed was the gatekeeper. During a visit to Rome in August 2010, he offered to be EU’s border guardian, saying that he would control illegal migration and reduce the rise of “Black Europe”.
The new Libya should not use cooperation on illegal migration with EU states as a scheme to reach other goals. The exchange should be symbiotic: beneficial to both. Cooperation on migration is necessary for internal security, which is currently lacking in Libya.
With elections on the horizon, expect to see the issues of migration, organised crime and internal security on party platforms.