Wednesday 30 March 2011

The 1.5 million migrants lie: How Gaddafi, Europe and Frontex invented the migration invasion

In previous posts I have tried debunk the popular myth that Europe should brace itself for a migration invasion or "Biblical exodus" following the popular uprising and violence in Libya.

The idea is that up to 1.5 million African migrants are waiting in Libya for the first occasion to migrate to Europe. This idea is based on a number of common misunderstandings about North African and Libyan migration.

The most fundamental and persistent misunderstanding is that Libya is a so-called "transit country" - or the assumption that most or all migrants in Libya would be "on their way" to Europe. This totally ignores the basic fact that over the past 40 years, Libya has been as destination country in its own right. For more information on the historical roots of trans-Saharan migratoin to Libya, I can recommend a recently published paper by French migration researchers Sylvie Bredeloup and Libya-specialist Olivier Pliez.

Like other oil states in the region, since the 1970s oil boom, sparsely populated Libya lacked the labour and skills needed to run the oil industry, expand road and urban infrastructure, construct houses, to run restaurants, clean the houses, to run farms, so on. Over the past decades, the Libyan economy has become totally dependent on migrant labour, particularly in the private sectors. Most Libyans work for the government, and many shy away from doing arduous, manual jobs.

While most migrants initially came from North African countries, from the 1990s Gaddafi started welcoming people from sub-Saharan African countries to migrate to Libya. Although reliable statistics do not exist, over a million, perhaps 1.5 sub-Saharan migrants are often believed to live in Libya, apart from many Egyptian, Tunisian, Asian and European migrant workers.

Although they were an easily exploitable, cheap workforce, they increasingly became target of racist attacks, and in 2000 dozens of sub-Saharan African migrant workers were killed during street riots. This was the beginning of a period of mounting racism, and African workers got increasingly blamed for all sorts of social ills such as crime, disease and unemployment. Gaddafi encouraged this as blaming "Black" African migrants distracted the attention from the real causes of Libya's economic decline and social discontent. 

Although the racist attacks and the deteriorating situation in Libya prompted some sub-Saharan migrants to move to other Maghreb countries or to Europe, the large majority came to Libya to work. As European, Egyptian, Tunisian and Asian migrant workers in Libya, various press reports confirm that the large majority wants to go home. The real tragedy is that many sub-Saharan African are stuck in Libya, and fear violence by pro- and anti-Gaddafi groups, also because they risk to be mistaken as supposed "black mercenaries".

About 400,000 migrant workers and Libyans have left Libya so far over the Egyptian-Libyan and Tunisian-Libyan land borders, and nearly all are returning home. This has nothing to do with the thousands of Tunisians arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa, who are mainly would-be migrant workers and part of the yearly springtime increase in cross-Mediterranean migration. 

According to media sources, less than 1000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Malta and Lampedusa from Libya so far. More may surely follow the longer the conflict persists, but this has nothing to do with a biblical exodus.

"How come" that many belief that all these supposedly 1.5 million migrants are on their way to Europe, and are now waiting for the first occasion to jump on the boat to Europe?

There is evidence that this is not "just" a misunderstanding, but a lie consciously brought into the world by Gaddafi, Italian and other European governments as well as Frontex, the EU border agency. They all have a political and financial interest in creating panic and fear about a looming immigrant invasion. Rebranding the 1.5 million resident migrant workers in Libya as "transit migrants" was the perfect recipe. 

For populist politicians in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, fearmongering about an impending African immigration invasion was a successful electoral strategy to rally people behind a common cause and to blame migrants. It also gave EU politicians the perfect excuse to lift the arms embargo on Libya in 2004, with the excuse that Libya needed those arms to "fight illegal migration". This opened the door for the Italian, French, British and German arms industry to sell weapons to Gaddafi that he is now deploying against his own citizens.  

In many ways, a problem of the looming African invasion was "invented"so that we had an excuse to "combat" what was basically an invented problem - and so the "combating" will always be a success. Eager as Gaddafi was in those days to regain international respectability, he was also happy to cynically exploit the "myth of invasion" by signing migration deals with European countries. Gaddafi's migration pact with Berlusconi also resulted in Libya taking back sub-Saharan migrants from Italy and deporting  them over Libyan territory to their origin countries, where several of them faced persecution. This was a clear breach of refugees rights, but few European politicians really cared.

As early as June 2003 (!), the Italian interior minister claimed that 1.5 to 2 millions of Africans would be waiting in Libya to illegally cross to Europe. In the wake of the Libyan crisis, similar insinuations have been made by Italian ministers Frattini and Moroni ("Biblical Exodus") as well as French, Dutch, Swiss, and other European politicians. Italian interior minister Moroni warned of a "biblical exodus"and "an invasion of one million, 1.5 million that would bring any country to its knees."

The invasion imaging fits perfectly into the strategy of a new generation of European politicians who, since the end of the Cold War, have defined immigration as the central problem of our time. They also skillfully amalgamate fear of immigration and Islam. Populist politicians who aim to links most social and economic problems to “mass immigration” have therefore an interest in a strong magnification of the actual migration phenomenon. It is also an apt means to distract attention from domestic problems.

Politicians are aided by sensationalist media which copy politicians discourses and interpret the sight of each fishing boat overloaded with migrants as a harbinger of the looming African exodus. All this together creates the image of a threat, the "black danger”, or even "a potential tsunami of up to 1.5 million migrants and refugees". This has been a consistent pattern over the past decades: every arrival of migrant boats are consistently interpreted as the harbingers of a migration exodus that will crash upon the shores of Europe.
But what about Frontex, Europe's border agency? Also Frontex joint the chorus of liars by recently stating that "as many as 1.5 million migrants are ready to risk anything to set foot on European soil". According to another press report, Frontex stated that between 750,000 and 1.5 million would-be economic migrants from Africa would be "holed up" in Libya.
Why would they be lying? 

Frontex is supposed to guard Europe's lengthy external borders. The effectiveness of its actions can be seriously questioned in view of the near-impossibility to guard several 10,000s kilometers of Mediterranean coastline. 

The main effect of increasing border controls has been a diversion of migration flows to other sea crossing points - a cat-and-mouse-game with no end.

The budget of Frontex has literally exploded from 6.2 million Euro in 2005 to no less than 87.9 million Euro in 2010 - an astonishing fourteen-fold (!) increase in just 6 years.

Obviously, it is also in their interest to represent migration asa danger in order to make themselves more relevant. Creating a "state of emergency" is an effective way to divert the attention away from a more rational debate about the efficiency of their actions and the monstrous dimensions of their budget.

So, the 1.5 million lie serves them well, too.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Will Gaddafi be able to unleash a migration invasion?

In the wake of the unexpected UN Security Council resolution and subsequent attacks by French, British and US forces against Libyan military goals, Gaddafi has today announced that he stops cooperation with the EU in stemming illegal migration from Libya. In the past few weeks, Gaddafi has already repeatedly threatened to open the migration floodgates if European governments would keep on supporting protesters against his regime.
But how realistic is it that Gaddafi could unleash a migration invasion to Europe? Although the crisis and falling away of controls might well lead to a certain increase in migration, it seems a delusion that Gaddafi can unleash a massive wave of migrants.
Gaddafi has consistently used the mass migration threat as a tool to blackmail his European negotiation partners. Besides oil, the migration issue was one of the main negotiations chips he used to forge partnerships with EU countries, and Italy in particular, to regain international respectability over the past decade.
It therefore served him well that there occurred a certain increase in illegal boat migration from North African and, increasingly, sub-Saharan migrants from the Libyan coast to Italy and Malta in the early 2000s. This increase was mainly the result of increasing controls on other parts of the Mediterranean coast (such as the Strait of Gibraltar) and was part of the usual cat-and-mouse-game between border controls on the hand and migrants and smugglers on the other. It was also a partial reaction to an increase in racist violence in Libya against sub-Saharan migrant workers.
However, it is important to remind that this regular cross-Mediterranean boat migration has never exceeded several tens of thousands per years, or about 2 percent of total EU immigration, even if it disproportionally affects particular islands and countries like Lampedusa in Italy and Malta. This illegal boat migration has been taking place since the early nineties, when most European countries introduced visa requirements for North Africans which stopped seasonal and largely circular migration and forced them to migrate illegally. In recent years, more sub-Saharan African workers have joined these flows.

However, in terms of numbers, this migration nothing to do with an invasion or a “biblical exodus” recently presaged by Italian interior minister Moroni.
Both Gaddafi and European and, particularly, Italian governments have had an interest in casting illegal migration across the Mediterranean as an existential threat to Europe by hugely exaggerating the true scale of this migration.
This allowed them to position themselves as important "frontline" countries in countering the perceived migration siege of "Fortress Europe". The consistent use of belligerent terms such as “fighting illegal migration” by governments and migration agencies like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Frontex, the EU’s border agency, are less innocent than they seem, as they have served to cast migration as a threat.

Politicians and migration agencies have an interest in migration being "problematised". The more migration is seen as a threat, the bigger the financial and electoral support for governments and agencies which are seen as capable of stopping migrants from coming or sending them back.
And this is what has exactly happened over the past few years. In 2004, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi signed a pact to curb irregular migration to Italy, with Libya agreeing to deport sub-Saharan migrants over Libyan territory to their origin countries. Refugees have been deported back to countries like Eritrea and Sudan where they faced persecution, which was a clear violation of human rights and refugee law.  Italy has also drawn criticism for handing over to Libya migrants it intercepts at sea, without screening first whether they might seek asylum.
Ironically, it served Italy well that Gaddafi was a systematic human rights violator. This made him the perfect partner to prevent migrants from leaving and to deport migrants or imprison them in desert camps under inhumane conditions. After all, police states are better able to control migration exactly because they violate basic human rights. This is another dimension of the problematic and perverse nature of “dealing with dictators”.
From the European side, fear-mongering about a looming migration invasion seems part of a deliberate, electoral strategy.  The invasion imaging fits perfectly into the strategy of a new generation of European politicians who, since the end of the Cold War, have defined (mass) immigration as the central problem of our time. They also skillfully amalgamate fear of immigration and Islam. Populist politicians who link most social and economic problems to “mass immigration” have therefore an interest in a strong magnification of the actual migration phenomenon.
In their efforts, such politicians are aided by sensationalist media, who unfortunately tend interpret the sight of each fishing boat overloaded with migrants as a harbinger of the coming African exodus. All this together creates the image of a threat, the "black danger”, or even literally an “immigration tsunami.
This casting migration as a “threat”, a tidal wave (that only Libya and Italy) can stem – is deeply problematic. First, it dehumanizes migrants and refugees and undermines the protection they deserve. Second, it exaggerates the de facto limited scale of trans-Mediterranean boat migration. Third, it ignores that this migration is largely driven by demand for cheap migrant labour in Europe.
Fourth, it is based on the false assumption that all sub-Saharan migrants in North Africa are in transit to Europe and waiting for the first occasion to jump on the boat. For instance, Frontex recently stated that as many as 1.5 million migrants are ready to risk anything to set foot on European soil (watch this video). Over the past decade, Gaddafi and European politicians have repeatedly used this apocalyptic imagery to raise alarm on migration. Gaddafi did not shy away from outright mass migration blackmailing. On a visit to Italy in August 2010, Gaddafi said that the EU should pay Libya at least 5bn euros a year to stop illegal African immigration and avoid a “black Europe”.
This is pure misleading manipulation, as it totally ignores that, first and foremost, Libya is an immigration country in its own right. Most migrants have come there to work. Many of them are from sub-Saharan countries. This was proven by the large majority of the over 300,000 migrants who have crossed the Libyan-Egyptian and Libyan-Tunisian borders want to go home. The hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) of migrants still staying in Libya either do not wish to go back or are impoverished sub-Saharan migrants that lack the means to go back or fear to become the victim of racist attacks as they risk to be mistaken as “mercenaries”.
Most observers and the media think that most African migrants use Libya as a transit country on their way to Europe. Gaddafi has shrewdly exploited this fear 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. But it has little to do with reality. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming weeks and months, and much will obviously depend on the continuation and severity of violence affecting Libya. But one thing seems sure: It is a delusion that most African migrants in Libya would be willing or have the means to massively jump on fishing boats to Europe. Most are trying to get home, and the real drama is that many are trapped in the conflict and cannot get away.
Surely, the falling away of controls is likely to lead to an increase of cross-Mediterranean migration of North Africans as well as sub-Saharans. And there may also be an increasing number of Libyans amongst these migrants and refugees. There have also been allegations that Gaddafi is planning to willingly launch boats loaded with African migrants from the Libyan coast to substantiate his recent threats. This would be a grave violation of human rights he would probably not shy away from if he is still able to put this idea in practice.
There is reason to believe that, if the Libyan conflict persists, this may increasingly become a migration of refugees rather than of potential workers. The longer the violence continues, the greater the risks of a real refugee crisis, including the necessity that an increasing number of Libyans and migrant workers trapped in Libya will seek protection and asylum in Europe. Over the pas week, there has indeed been a striking increase in the number of Libyans fleeing the country.
However, this has nothing to do with a “biblical exodus” or an immigrant invasion. In that sense, Gaddafi’s threats are largely void. The idea that Gaddafi alone can swamp Europe with African migrants is a delusion, illustrating his megalomaniac character rather than anything else.
The “myth of invasion” has been willingly created by Gaddafi and European politicians to serve their own geo-political, electoral and financial interests. This has only reinforced the idea that (African and Muslim) migrants are an existential threat to European societies. This undermines the support for the protection of rights of migrants and refugees, as has already happened under the European migration deals with Gaddafi. Politicians, media and migration agencies have a moral duty to stop fear mongering about an impending migration invasion and to base their statements on evidence rather than unfounded fears.
For European politicians, the embarrassing “Gaddafi experience” will hopefully stop them to forge perverse migration deals with human rights violating dictators.

Some background readings

Paoletti, Emanuela  and Ferruccio Pastore (2011) Sharing the dirty job on the southern front? Italian–Libyan relations on migration and their impact on the European Union. Working Paper, International Migration Institute (IMI), University of Oxford.
Bredeloup, Sylvie and Olivier Pliez (2011) The Libyan Migration Corridor. Florence, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.
de Haas, Hein (2006) Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends. Migration Information Source, November 2006.  
de Haas, Hein (2008) The myth of invasion: The inconvenient realities of migration from Africa to the European Union. Third World Quarterly, 29 (7): 1305-1322

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.