Off the Libyan Coast: "Better We Die in the Sea"


More than 1,500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean crossing since January, the vast majority of whom departed from Libya. Image by Ayman Oghana. Libya, 2011.

Libyan officials have been touting the interception last week of a fishing boat carrying some 400 sub-Saharan Africans toward Italian shores as evidence of their commitment to stem the flow of illegal migrants headed to Europe. Unlike the Qaddafi regime, which used the threat of unleashing a flotilla of migrant boats to “blackmail” European leaders, the new interim government was eager to crack down on migrants. The interior minister said the move was intended to send “a strong message to the whole world that the new Libya is completely different.”

The intercepted migrants told a different story, claiming they had been warned they would be expelled from the country and so paid the boat's captain for passage to Europe. According to Reuters, the passengers said the boat motored just off shore and then returned to Tripoli's main harbor where naval forces were waiting to apprehend them. They thought it was a setup. An official in the Interior Ministry reportedly said there had been “an agreement” with the ship's captain.

Either way, the timing was politically fortuitous. The authority of the fledgling national government has been tested in recent weeks by sporadic clashes between rival rebel militias. Officials must have been in the final stages of an agreement, announced earlier this month, to renew a suspended friendship treaty between Italy and Libya. The irony of a “new Libya” working to prevent illegal migrants washing up on European shores is that this was exactly the game Qaddafi played for years as a de facto European Union border guard.

In the coastal town of Zuwarah, a longtime departure point for sub-Saharan Africans looking to reach Italy by boat, I interviewed a young man who had been involved in the smuggling business. He was thin with black hair slicked forward into a Caesar’s cut. Wearing a black Calvin Klein t-shirt with dark blue jeans and sandals, he had the look of an accountant in weekend attire. Although he would not reveal his name, his account squares with independent information from UN agencies, survivors of the boat passages, and others in town.

“Three years ago, this place was full of Africans,” he told me. Qaddafi had opened Libya’s southern borders to allow guest workers into the country, and for years they poured into Libya to look for jobs, or port towns like Zuwarah to find a boat headed to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the gateway to Europe. In years past, he said, smuggling was a real business, which demanded the safe passage of their clients. Boats weren't filled beyond capacity, were stocked with enough food and water for the voyage, and piloted by men who knew what they were doing. It was a profitable business-- it was customary to throw a huge party when you made your first million dollars.

But in 2008 Libya finalized a friendship treaty with Italy, in which Qaddafi agreed to patrol his borders and the coast and to take back migrants picked up in international waters. After that, would-be smugglers were rounded up, beaten and tortured, to the point that many would even implicate innocent people just to satisfy their captors. Then came the uprising, and Qaddafi began filling boats with Africans and sending them towards Italy as punishment for Italian participation in the NATO campaign. “After February 17th, the army would say, 'bring these people to Italy,'" the smuggler told me. Qaddafi freed imprisoned smugglers, telling them it was time to do their part for the country-- "Guys, if you want to help Qaddafi, open the way to Europe.” The troops threatened to kill those who refused.

He described soldiers bringing truckloads of terrified Africans, and estimated that 40 percent of the passengers were forced onto the boat against their will. The army subsidized the trip and would pay for those they forced onto the boats, with soldiers going so far as to fill out a ticket for each passenger. The Africans were the VIPs, seated on top of the boat. The Filipinos and other minorities rode economy class, below in the hold. Soldiers would often fire celebratory bursts into the air. “They were very proud of what they were doing.” The army confiscated boats from anti-Qaddafi forces, small fishing vessels, and forced men to captain them. Many didn't know what they were doing or where they were going.

The regime hardly cared if they arrived. More than 1,500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean crossing since January, the vast majority of whom departed from Libya (one in 11 people leaving Libya died while for those leaving from Tunisia, the odds were one in 130). The boats had since stopped leaving from Libya, he said, in part because people were afraid of being taken for Qaddafi supporters. But as a business, he put the odds at 70 percent that it would start up again.

The problem with the border enforcement component of the original friendship treaty is that it outsourced responsibilities for screening migrants for claims to refugee status to a regime with a well-known record of migrant abuse. In 2009, an official with Human Rights Watch called it “a dirty deal” that allowed Italy to “dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations.” Rights advocates argue that Libya is still a long way from the capacity to ensure that migrants are treated fairly and processed for claims to international protection.

The case of Abu Kurke, a 23-year-old political refugee from Ethiopia we tracked down in Italy, is instructive of the risks inherent in such an agreement.

In the summer of 2010, Kurke says he bought passage to Italy along with 29 others on a small boat piloted by a Ghanian captain without a compass. But after three days lost at sea they were picked up by an Italian Treasury Department boat carrying Libyan troops. The Libyans beat and cuffed the passengers and deposited them in a Libyan jail where Kurke spent the next eight months without trial.

The European Court of Human Rights is expected to rule soon on the legality of the “pushback” practice.

He fared no better on his second voyage. After the revolution began in February, they threw open the door to his cell, putting him on a small, packed boat on March 25, one of 72 passengers forced to make the desperate crossing. After leaking oil, the boat went adrift. A military helicopter spotted it and uniformed men threw down a few bottles of water and gestured that help would come. But food and water supplies soon ran out and passengers began to die of thirst and starvation. I spoke to an Eritrean priest at the Vatican who talked with passengers on Kurke’s boat before their satellite phone died. He said he alerted the Italian Coast Guard.

Kurke described crossing the path of an aircraft carrier (an investigation by the UK’s Guardian newspaper concluded it was the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle—French officials denied the allegation). Two jets were scrambled and flew very close overhead. He and others held aloft the bodies of dead infants to show the pilots they were in need, but both returned to the aircraft carrier and the ship disappeared. Several fishing boats ignored them as well, he said.

After 16 days at sea, the boat washed up again off the Libyan coast near the besieged city of Misrata. “Better we die in the sea,” Kurke said when he realized he was back in Libya. Of the 72 passengers that left Libya, only nine survived in the end.

Eventually he found refuge in a Catholic Church in Tripoli. After a few days he decided to go to a refugee camp in Tunisia. But he was stopped at a military checkpoint by loyalists and taken to a prison full of sub-Saharan Africans. Along with hundreds of others he was dispatched on a boat that eventually made it to Italy.

It was not the only charge that NATO ships ignored the plight of boat migrants in distress. European officials have ordered an investigation into the increased sea fatalities this year, which is due out in February. But there may be a link between reluctance to respond to migrant boats and squabbling between European states over who should take in the rescued passengers, said Niels Frenzen, a refugee law specialist at University of Southern California. He pointed to an incident in which a Spanish frigate rescued a migrant boat and was taken out of commission for a week while trying to find a place to disembark them. "Shipmasters do not want to rescue migrants in distress because nobody wants them, " he said.