Friday 25 February 2011

Speculations on a ‘biblical exodus’ from Libya are wrong and dangerous

In the face of continuing violence in Libya, it is striking to see how the attention of some European governments is already shifting from the unprecedented suffering of people in Libya to selfish panic about immigration issues. This panic has particularly revolved around predictions that massive numbers of migrants and asylum seekers will start moving from Libya to Italy in the wake of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
The Italian government even warned of a ‘biblical exodus’ to Europe.  The media have also started to use such apocalyptic images. However, there are many reasons to believe that such predictions are wrong as they vastly exaggerate the true, much more limited scale of migration. They are also dangerous because unrealistic fears of mass immigration may fuel racism and effectively undermine refugee protection. 
Over the past decade or so, European politicians have become increasingly obsessed by immigration questions in an attempt to respond to mounting racism and popular anti-immigration feelings. They have also actively played into and further reinforced such fears by employing rhetoric which portrays immigration as an external threat to security, the sovereignty of the state and social cohesion and cultural integrity.  
Politicians desire to give an impression of controlling immigration by using tough and belligerent language such as the need to ‘fight’ and ‘combat’ illegal migration.  Yet this obscures the fact that European governments have little genuine economic interest in stopping migration. The anti-immigration rhetoric about immigration fears also conceals the fact that African migration to Europe is fuelled by a structural demand for cheap migrant labour and that democratic states have limited means to effectively stop migration as long as this demand persists.
So, the main issue for politicians is to give the appearance to their constituencies that they are fully in control of borders and are successfully fulfilling their ‘security imperative’.  This manipulation of the migration issues reveals a well-tried pattern of politicians who willingly reinforce or invent external threats to create a common cause. As already argued by Nando Sigona for the case of the recent arrivals of Tunisians on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the creation of ‘emergency discourses’ on migration can be a highly effective means for politicians to divert attention away from domestic political problems, as in the case of Berlusconi’s scandals.
Not only politicians, but also the media play an important role in creating apocalyptic images about African-European migration. Media outlets are often eager to use sensational terms to maintain momentum and galvanize people’s emotions. To some, this may perhaps sound quite extreme. Yet, at the risk of generalization, this is what is clearly happening in the mainstream coverage of Libya. The lack of verifiable information is not helping, either. Journalists and commentators are relying on scattered and often unreliable information.
So, in the midst of this ‘controlled’ information maelstrom, wild and totally unfounded speculations by politicians about hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers about to migrate to Europe can easily become self-referring and presented as ‘facts’. This is not only inaccurate, but is also harmful, as speculations about ‘massive immigration’ serve to portray immigration and immigrants as a threat.
While it has been amply documented that there are between 1.5 and 2 million regular and irregular migrants in Libya, and while we may expect certain increases in emigration from Libya as a response to instability and violence, it seems rather absurd to assume that the large majority of immigrants currently living in Libya would collectively migrate to Europe.
Politicians, journalists and researchers should therefore refrain from manipulating people’s fears by projecting images of millions of people arriving on European shores, because there is simply no evidence, and because it is dangerous. To start with, it ignores what is happening on the ground and the true scale of migrant and refugee flows. Since the onset of the Libyan revolt, significant numbers of migrant workers are fleeing out of Libya. It has been estimated that over the last few days over  5,000 people have arrived at the Tunisian border and some 15,000 at the Egyptian border. Other migrants have moved south, towards Niger. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the total number of arrivals in Egypt, Tunisia and Niger so far would be about 40,000 to 50,000. These are significant numbers, but they also do not have the proportions of a ‘biblical exodus’, and they certainly question the prevailing, and false, wisdom according to which most people in Libya would move to Europe.
So far, the unanticipated political turmoil across North Africa has had significant but certainly not alarmist impact on migration within the region and across the Mediterranean.  A few weeks ago, boats carrying a few thousand Tunisians arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the fall of the Ben Ali regime. The Italian government was swift to declare this a national emergency issue, whereas the total numbers were actually tiny in comparison to overall regular and irregular immigration to Italy. This shows how politicians often blow the scale of migration out of proportion, and that they would do so on purpose.
More in general, ideas of a looming ‘invasion’ to Europe of a large number of African migrants have long proven to be entirely fictitious. It is of course impossible to predict the exact impact of the current – let alone future – turmoil on regional migration flows. However, based on experiences with previous crises we can get some sense of the possible scale and direction of migration. While refugee flows can be rather big,  most refugees tend to migrate within regions. Even in the worst case scenario of a full-scale humanitarian crisis and protracted conflict, we cannot just assume that all migrants currently in Libya would simply turn up in Europe, because most migrants will prefer to go their home countries and many of those who would wish to go to Europe will not have the resources to do so.
The unwarranted portrayal of future African–European migration as an emergency issue is particularly dangerous because it diverts the attention away from more important and urgent issues. This particularly applies to the precarious position of people – Libyans and migrants – inside Libya. First, there is evidence that African migrants and asylum seekers in Libya have been the target of racist violence because some citizens of sub-Saharan African countries they have been suspected of being mercenaries. In fact videos suggest that alleged mercenaries have been captured and lynched by Libyan protestors. Somalis in Tripoli, for example, have been hunted and are frightened to go out. According to the Italian representative for the UNHCR, Libya is witnessing a ‘hunt for the African foreigner. Second, most refugee movements are concentrated within the North African and Sahelian region. Instead of inventing a false immigration threat to European security and losing time and energy in European conflicts about ‘burden sharing’, the priority should be protecting the lives of migrants and refugees in Libya and North Africa as well as Libyans themselves under threat by the regime.
Politicians and the media should therefore refrain from fomenting alarmist feelings about a ‘biblical exodus’ based on latent racist fears rather than a real understanding of what is going on on the ground. At the same time, the international community should take a more forceful and proactive stance towards the state terror and violence occurring in Libya. As Lisa Anderson recently argued, this crisis may be a good test of the United Nations and the international community to discharge its ‘responsibility to protect’ citizens from predatory governments.  Such a truly humanitarian approach requires that we eschew uninformed, Eurocentric and highly deceptive portrayals of African people, and migrants in general, as the frightening ‘other’ who are about to invade Europe.

Monday 21 February 2011

African migrants become easy target for racist violence in Libya

Who cares about African migrants in Libya? Now that Gaddafi is killing and bombing his own people, Western countries and companies are trying to get their citizens out of Libya. Also Egypt and Turkey are facilitating the return of the thousands of migrants living in Libya by chartering flights and opening land borders. Look here for a report from Al Jazeera about returning Egyptians.
But why is nobody concerned about the plight of sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya? As victims of racism and ruthless exploitation, they are Libya’s most vulnerable immigrant population, and their home country governments do not give them any support.
Since the news had surfaced that Gaddafi has allegedly hired ‘black’ mercenaries to kill people, their situation has become outright dangerous. There is a huge danger that there will soon be a day of reckoning for African migrants, and the arbitrary violence has possibly started already (see this video for instance).
As one commentator mentioned "Where is the proof that this people are mercenaries and not just normal Black people?" Are Black Libyans or Black immigrants in Libya safe from wrong accusations? The answer is "no". Sadly, innocent African migrants living in Libya have become an easy target for angry mobs.
That scapegoating migrants is also part of official strategies became clear during Sunday’s speech by Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, on national Libyan television. As is common for threatened dictators, Saif’s speech was full of conspiracy theory – blaming usual suspects such as imperialists, the BBC and Al Jazeera (!) – but also immigrants. He mentioned that he and his daddy will fight until the last bullet. An ominous sign, showing how mad Gaddafi is – and that he might not refrain from further mass killings to take revenge on the people who have dared to challenge his rule – ‘After me, the deluge’.
What makes the situation particularly dangerous are Gaddafi’s insinuations that foreigners are to blame for the violence and mass killings. This put the tens or hundreds of thousands of Egyptian and sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya at great risk.
Most people as well as the media seem to think that most African migrants use Libya as a transit country on their way to Europe. Gaddafi has shrewdly exploited largely unfounded European fears of an African invasion to position himself as a partner in the so-called ‘fight against illegal immigration’ – which has earned him billions of dollars in bilateral deals, and helped him to regain respectability.
Gaddafi has repeatedly threatened to open the migration floodgates if he does not get more support, and a few days ago he also warned European governments that they will be flooded with migrants if they keep on supporting protesters. European governments seem to be afraid of the immigration consequences of North African instability, and this is also one of the factors that seems to have driven their staunch support for North African despots over the past decades.
In fact, politicians and the media hugely exaggerate the scale of illegal migration from Africa to Europe. According to the best available estimates, only a few tens of thousands of migrants cross the Mediterranean illegally by boat each year, representing only 1 to 2 percent of total immigration to Europe.
Leaving aside the fact that fear of an African ‘invasion’ is entirely unfounded, what Gaddafi has been much more keen to hide is that Libya is an important migration destination in its own right, and that his guestworker policies are the main explanation behind a massive increase in the number of African workers in Libya. Most African migrants have come from countries such as Niger, Chad and elsewhere in West Africa to work as low-paid labourers in the oil industry, construction, agriculture and service sectors. African workers tend to do the most dangerous and dirty jobs.
Not many people know that most African migrants do not use Libya as a passage to Europe, but that they have come to Libya as part of Gaddafi’s guestworker schemes or as illegal labour migrants. According to several estimates, Libya hosts 2 to 2.5 million immigrants, representing 25 to 30 percent of its total population. This includes about half a million Egyptians; several tens of thousands of Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians; and 1 to 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans (for further information see ‘The Myth of Invasion’).
Since the 1990s, Gaddafi has actively stimulated immigration from sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger as part of his ‘pan-African’ policies. These immigrants from extremely poor countries were easier to exploit than Arab workers. From 2000 onwards, violent clashes between Libyans and African workers led to the street killings of dozens of sub-Saharan migrants, who were routinely blamed for rising crime, disease and social tensions.
In an apparent attempt to respond to growing domestic racism, the Libyan regime hardened its policies towards African immigrants. Measures included lengthy and arbitrary detention of immigrants in poor conditions in prisons and camps, physical abuse, and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of immigrants. Gaddafi has been happy to conclude agreements with Italy and other European states to violently crack down on immigration in exchange for lucrative trade and arms deals. This has led to blatant violation of international refugee law. In many ways, it has served European countries well that Libya has not signed the Geneva refugee convention and is not concerned about human rights at all.
Of course this repression has not stopped migration, but mainly facilitated exploitation of African migrants in Libya, whose position became even more vulnerable. While the Gaddafi regime has tried to put the blame on immigrants for all sorts of social problems, their cheap labour force has served Libya very well economically. 
According to several sources, Gaddafi has now hired thousands of mercenaries from Chad and other poor sub-Saharan countries to do the actual killings. This is a truly diabolic move – as the Gaddafi clan now tries to blame the killings on the ‘foreign element’ who were hired by him in the first place. This might fuel racist violence and further destabilisation of the country.
It is not clear to what extent these mercenaries have been recruited among migrants or directly in the origin countries. However, irrespective of their background, the apparent presence of black African mercenaries has certainly only fuelled already present racist feelings towards African immigrants.
African immigrants are now linked to state-orchestrated violence and mass killings, and we may therefore fear the worst about the violent backlash that may follow particularly after Gaddafi is ousted – they will be an easy target for mass lynching that may follow. And in the unlikely case Gaddafi manages to cling on to power, African migrants are equally likely to be scapegoated and massacred.
Let’s hope that Gaddafi’s devilish tactics to put the blame on foreigners and immigrants won’t work – and that Libyans will hold Gaddafi entirely responsible for these mass killings. However, there is a huge danger that the violence might increasingly turn against the hundreds of thousands of innocent and hard-working African immigrants living in Libya.
European governments, which have been so keen to support Gaddafi and have turned a blind eye to the massive human rights abuses in return for economic benefits, have no right to abuse unjustified fears concerning an immigrant invasion - which are fueled by their own anti-immigrant rhetoric - to deny refugees inside and from Libya their rights to protection from violence and death.