Published October 31, 2011
In late March, as Libya’s civil war raged, loyalist soldiers forced Abu Kurke, a 23-year-old political refugee from Ethiopia, onto an inflatable boat with dozens of other African migrants and dispatched them from Tripoli’s port into the unforgiving waters of the Mediterranean.
The journey almost killed Mr. Kurke. After leaking oil, the boat went adrift between Tripoli and the Italian island of Lampedusa. A helicopter spotted it, and soldiers threw down a few bottles of water and gestured that help would come.
Hours became days. Stranded at sea, the boat encountered bad weather. Waves beat against the vessel, knocking two people overboard. Food and water soon ran out, and exhausted passengers began to die of starvation and thirst. The Italian Coast Guard was alerted and reportedly made contact with a warship in the area. Still, no help came.
After 16 days at sea, the boat washed up again off the Libyan coast near the besieged city of Misurata. Of the 72 passengers who had left Libya, only 9 survived — mostly by drinking rainwater and eating toothpaste.
Back in Libya, Mr. Kurke was detained by loyalist forces while trying to flee to Tunisia. They forced him onto yet another boat headed for Lampedusa. “I’m going to die,” he thought. This time, he made it.
The Arab Spring brought a sense of pride and hope to North Africa, especially in Tripoli, where celebrations in the newly renamed Martyrs’ Square drew thousands, their singing punctuated by celebratory bursts of machine-gun fire.
But for the more than one million African guest workers who came to oil-rich Libya seeking their fortunes, it has meant terror. Because Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s army employed many mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, these innocent migrant laborers now find themselves singled out by ordinary Libyans and rebels who believe they are the enemy.
For these forgotten refugees of the Libyan war — hiding in ports and scattered houses, locked up in makeshift jails, shot by rebels, or dead at the bottom of the Mediterranean — the uprising took everything of their former lives.
The turmoil that began in Tunisia and Libya last spring has sent about a million people fleeing across borders and a flotilla of boats headed toward Lampedusa — the closest European shore. By April, some 25,000 Tunisians — young, usually educated, French-speaking men looking for work in Europe — had turned up on Lampedusa. Italy tried to get rid of them by issuing many of the Tunisians six-month temporary residency permits entitling them to travel to other European countries. Yet at the French border, officials refused to recognize their documents and turned them back. Their case became a major political test of European unity. After several weeks, most eventually made it into France.
But meanwhile, across North Africa, hundreds of thousands more were scrambling to find shelter, burdening volunteer host families, filling spartan border camps in Egypt and Tunisia, and struggling to avoid attacks in Libya, where dark-skinned foreigners mistaken for mercenaries were often targets.
Despite Europe’s fears of a flood of refugees, most of the burden of the Libyan exodus has so far been borne by the country’s North African neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia, who kept their borders open to the masses who fled there from Libya.
While most refugees from sub-Saharan Africa have since managed to return home, thousands remain stranded in refugee camps and hundreds are still trapped in Tripoli, unable to make the treacherous passage to Europe or too afraid to brave the streets where hostile Libyans might attack them.
For all the high-minded justifications that led to Europe’s military intervention in Libya, there has been little political willingness to shoulder the humanitarian consequences of the war.
Europe’s response has been dismal, especially since European leaders were the most vocal advocates for intervening in Libya and now stand to reap the benefits of oil and trade deals with the new Libyan government.
As civil war intensified in Libya and more and more migrants departed for Italy — some sent by Colonel Qaddafi to punish Italy for its participation in the NATO intervention — European politicians presented it to the public as a crisis of illegal immigration.
It was a particularly cynical move, considering that many of the thousands who sailed to Lampedusa from Libya were fleeing war or had claims to international protection as refugees or asylum seekers. “It’s obscene,” says Niels Frenzen, a refugee law specialist at the University of Southern California. “Under NATO auspices you’ve got this massive military response to protect civilians in Libya and once those civilians step foot on a boat, NATO isn’t using its resources to aggressively protect them like they would if they had just stayed in Misurata.”
For many years, Libya has been a destination and transit hub for African migrants, including over one million guest workers who were living there when the revolution began, looking to benefit from the country’s oil-rich economy, as well as refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea.
In 2008, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Colonel Qaddafi signed a “friendship treaty” that included extensive Italian investment in Libya and a joint border enforcement deal with the goal of reducing the flow of African refugees and migrants into Europe. With funding from Italy and the European Union, Colonel Qaddafi tightened Libya’s borders, and the two nations worked together on maritime patrols to stop migrants from entering Europe by sea.
The deal also allowed Italy to send migrants picked up in international waters back to Libya, where they were often beaten, imprisoned and otherwise abused. Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, and its appalling record of migrant abuse is well known. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented the ongoing torture and abuse of migrants in Libyan detention centers. An official with the rights group called the friendship treaty “a dirty deal” that allowed Italy to “dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations.”
When Italy agreed to join NATO’s Libya campaign in March, all that changed. Colonel Qaddafi, who had earlier threatened to “turn Europe black,” began intentionally filling boats with Africans as punishment for Italian participation in the NATO campaign.
Truckloads of terrified Africans, like Mr. Kurke, were forced onto boats, often captained by men compelled to set sail by Colonel Qaddafi’s army. Many didn’t know what they were doing or where they were going. The regime hardly cared if the passengers arrived. Approximately 27,000 people who departed from Libya reached Italy. At least 1,500 others never made it.
An estimated 5,500 with claims to international protection are still stuck in Egypt and Tunisia. They can’t return home because of war or persecution. They aren’t safe in Libya. Nor are Egypt or Tunisia likely to be hospitable refuges in the long run, as both are now grappling with the economic and social consequences of their own revolutions.
In the tree-shaded courtyard of a Tripoli prison, Alarbi Abu Almeda, a lean man in his late 20s, points to a young man limping in a leg cast. “This guy killed two of our friends,” he said casually. He was smoking on a bench, keeping watch over a few of the prison’s several hundred suspected Qaddafi fighters — men and boys captured in fighting, picked up at rebel checkpoints, or arrested based on tips from locals.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Almeda swung open a heavy door to a dark warehouse-size room where more than 100 people were huddled under blankets on a concrete floor, with clothes hanging to dry from the dingy walls. These, he insisted, were the most dangerous inmates.
Nearest the door was a group of a few dozen Nigerians, 14 of whom said they had been traveling with their wives back to Nigeria, when their bus was stopped at a rebel checkpoint. Most had come to Libya to work, finding jobs as technicians, repairmen and construction workers. Even before the war, they faced harassment from young Libyan men; after the fierce fighting in Misurata, they decided to return home.
Before they could, rebels took their passports and ordered them off the bus. The men were beaten and made to stand in line while guards patted down their wives, fondling their breasts.
After the prisoners were interviewed for a few hours, it became clear that many were simply African guest workers; mistakes had been made.
Other African migrants are not in prison, but stuck — unable to get out of Libya. About 700 are still camped out at the weathered port of Janzur, outside Tripoli. The Nigerians among them regularly gather around their pastor, Anthony Ojiexri, anxious for news of the war and the possibility of fleeing it.
Many of them came to the port to escape the war and the reprisals against foreign workers it unleashed. Others came to leave by boat for Lampedusa. But when they saw the small, dangerously overcrowded fishing vessels departing Janzur, they decided it was too risky. They became trapped, unable to leave the port for fear of being killed or arrested.
They now live beneath a fleet of dry-docked boats, sheltered by tarps or sheets of fabric stretched from the hulls to the ground like mudflaps, providing a modicum of privacy and protection from the sun, but little else.
Even at Janzur, they are not safe. Libyans harass them constantly, taking cellphones, money, even light bulbs. They are press-ganged into working as day laborers, for long hours and for little or no money, neglected by the rebel soldiers supposedly there to protect them. More than 10 women — some married, pregnant even — said they were gang raped by armed Arab men the night the rebels entered Tripoli. The men of the camp could not protect them.
Last month, Amnesty International issued a report lambasting European countries, especially those involved in NATO action against Libya, for abandoning the very people the conflict displaced.
Given their resources and proximity, European nations could do much more to help these refugees, admitting them on humanitarian grounds rather than detaining and deporting them. Europeans, Amnesty argued, “ignored Libya’s dire human rights record ... while actively seeking the collaboration of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s government to stem the flow of people arriving in Europe from Africa.”
European nations could absorb the relatively small number of refugees still in Tunisian and Egyptian camps with a slight increase in their annual refugee resettlement quotas. And visa waivers should be issued on humanitarian grounds for those who have already made the crossing alive. America alone took in 54,000 refugees from all over the world last year.
International agencies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have also asked various countries to raise their national refugee quotas, but the response has been underwhelming. Australia, Canada and the United States have offered to resettle some of the refugees stranded at Libya’s borders. But only eight European countries have stepped forward to help, collectively offering only 800 slots.
One reason European governments are reluctant to resettle migrants is fear of setting precedents, especially in light of the specter of large-scale climate-induced migration in the years ahead. They view a tough stance now as a signal to future migrants, according to Khalid Koser, a migration expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
As the human and economic consequences of the Arab Spring become visible in Europe and politicians opportunistically warn of a wave of illegal immigration, political rhetoric is clashing with reality. “It’s hypocritical,” says Seline Trevisanut, an Italian migration expert at the University of Cagliari. “We have a responsibility not to shut our doors completely.”
The European Court of Human Rights is soon expected to rule on whether the Berlusconi-Qaddafi deal allowing migrants to be returned to Libya violated Italy’s obligations under international law, including the explicit responsibility not to return people to a place where they might be tortured. Libya was deemed safe by the Italian government even though its immigration authorities were using stun guns on migrants, prodding them with red-hot pokers and abandoning some to die in the desert.
Italy now has a similar border enforcement agreement with Tunisia, yet economic migrants continue to arrive in Italy regularly. And, in part because Italy has chosen the maximum allowable period to detain them, the crowded detention centers are rapidly approaching their capacity while depriving detainees’ families back in Tunisia of needed remittances.
The irony, of course, is that Italy and France have largely dodged the “human tsunami” of African migrants they feared would wash up on Europe’s shores thanks to Tunisia’s and Egypt’s leaving their borders open as civil war erupted in Libya.
And today, because Europe won’t allow them in, those sub-Saharan refugees who have not managed to return home remain in forlorn desert camps like Saloum in Egypt and Shousha in Tunisia — an arid wasteland at the Libyan border that is home to 3,800 people living in rows of sand-swept tents.
Abdul Kadir Isaac Abdi, a 22-year-old Somali refugee, is one of them. He reached Libya in January 2009 after crossing the Sahara in a Land Cruiser with 35 strangers, eventually falling into the hands of a Libyan human trafficker who held him hostage.
A group of Somalis in Libya took pity on Mr. Abdi, ransoming him and taking him to Tripoli. There, he found work as a night watchman, then on a farm. Eventually he met a young Somali woman named Aisha. They married and earlier this year had a baby boy, Muhammad. “Libya was the only place that I had,” he said, “before the violence.”
When Libya’s armed uprising began, the situation for black migrants and refugees went from difficult to dangerous. Africans with dark skin suffered the wrath of rebels and their supporters — collectively punished for Colonel Qaddafi’s use of sub-Saharan mercenaries. Men like Mr. Abdi kept their heads down and warned their families not to venture outside.
One night in February, however, his son, Muhammad, grew sick with a fever and diarrhea. Mr. Abdi’s wife was worried and wanted to take him to a doctor. Mr. Abdi had to go to work but agreed that she should take him. There was an anti-Qaddafi protest in the streets that night that led to the deaths of several black Africans. His wife and infant son were shot dead on their way to the hospital.
Mr. Abdi found their corpses there, but he couldn’t retrieve their bodies because he didn’t have the right documents. He went to the Somali Embassy, and they told him to flee to Tunisia.
That’s where he is today, a refugee once more. From the sprawling camp in Shousha, he watches other African migrants depart, risking their lives on boats to Italy. The Tunisian boats headed for Italy carry 100 people, keeping quiet and riding low to avoid capsizing.
A few years ago, a boat turned over in the night. The bloated bodies of African migrants washed ashore the next day, their faces eaten by fish.
With little hope of reaching Lampedusa alive, and little chance of being granted refugee status by European governments who refuse to take responsibility for the human consequences of a war they promoted and waged, Mr. Abdi is now waiting to hear from the American government whether he will be given refuge in the United States.