Monday, 7 March 2011

The real refugee crisis: African migrants trapped in Libya

Where are the hundreds of thousands of refugees that were predicted to arrive on European shores as a result of the Libyan revolt? They have not come. Most migrants simply want to go home.
While most attention is given to the situation of the migrants fleeing Libya’s land borders, the real migration crisis is unfolding within Libya. Hundreds of thousands of migrants are believed to be trapped and face potentially life-threatening danger.
Let’s remind ourselves that just a week ago the media were abuzz with predictions of a “biblical exodus” towards Europe. Italian and other European politicians stated that Europe should brace itself for the mass arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees on European shores.
As usual, developments on the ground have proven the doomsayers wrong. The large majority of migrants fleeing the violence in Libya are returning to Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, the Philippines, China, Bangladesh and various European and African countries.
There have been some boats carrying some 6,000 migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but what few realise is that this is part of the ‘normal’ springtime boat migration of prospective migrant workers from the Tunisian coast. This should not be confused with the much more large-scale overland cross-border movement of migrants out of Libya who wish to return home. 
The whole idea of an “immigrant invasion” was flawed from the start. It was based on the misunderstanding that most migrants in Libya are in transit to Europe, while it was already widely known that most migrants had come to Libya to work, and now want to return home.
Although apocalyptic headlines about an upcoming immigrant invasion guarantee massive media attention and might serve domestic political goals, such fearmongering unfortunately diverts the attention away from the much-needed protection of migrants and refugees within North Africa.
Thanks to the efforts by the Tunisian government, local volunteers and agencies like the UNHCR and IOM, and through support by the international community, over the past week increasing efforts have been undertaken to assist migrants arriving at Libya’s borders.
However, those who make it to the border seem to be fortunate compared with those who are stuck in Libya. Of the approximately 2 to 2.5 million migrants allegedly living in Libya (reliable figures are lacking), only 200,000 or so have left.  Hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, mainly African migrants remain trapped in Libya.
Although there is still a lack of verifiable information, an increasing number of reports suggest that African migrants inside Libya have fallen victim to violence, robbery, imprisonment and, allegedly, murder. Although migrants of many origins have fallen victim to violence and abuse, sub-Saharan migrants run much higher risks. 
First of all, sub-Saharan Africans are among the poorest migrants in Libya. The long journey back home involves significant costs and risks of crossing the Sahara desert.  What makes them particularly vulnerable is that they run the risk of violent attacks by angry mobs because they are erroneously perceived as “African mercenaries” hired by Gaddafi. There is also evidence of violence and theft by Gaddafi loyalists and border guards.
So, sub-Saharan migrants have now become a potential target of violence from either side of the conflict. This is part of an established pattern of racist violence and discrimination against sub-Saharan migrants in Libya since they started arriving in increasingly large numbers since the 1990s. However, in the current situation of total lawlessness and violent conflict, these risks are higher than ever.
Many are not able to go home, because they lack the money and because they fear violence if they go out on the streets. At the same time, their governments are either not able or perhaps not interested in helping them.
UNHCR sources have confirmed that very few of the African workers in Libya have shown up at the borders. African workers trapped in Libya are the most vulnerable of the foreigners trying to flee the country. Over last weekend, the flow of people crossing into Tunisia dwindled to a trickle due to a massive police and military presence on the Libyan side of the border.
Although there is a lack of reliable statistics, one thing seems certain: large numbers of sub-Saharan migrants are trapped in Libya and they are extremely vulnerable to arbitrary violence.  Nobody knows exactly what is happening  inside Gaddafi-controlled territory. But knowing how youngsters from neighbouring countries such as Chad have apparently been recruited as ‘mercenaries’  through deceit and force, there is also a potential risk of forced conscription of sub-Saharan migrants for pro-Gaddafi militia.
It is impossible to predict what will happen exactly, and much depends on the future course of the conflict, but the lives of thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya are clearly at risk. The paradox is that those who came to Libya as migrant workers have now become refugees because they cannot leave their so-called “host” country.
The Gaddafi regime should be clearly held accountable for the tragedy unfolding in Libya. However, the international community in general and European governments in particular have a moral obligation to do everything in their power to end this conflict and to assist Libyan civilians and migrants in distress, instead of creating unjustified and opportunistic panic around a delusionary myth of invasion.
The longer the international community tolerates the systematic use of violence against Libyan civilians and the longer it neglects the plight of migrants in Libya, the larger the risks that a huge refugee crisis will emerge.

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