Migrants in Libya

Gate-Money for the Desert State

An estimated two million migrants live in Libya, most of which want to move on to Europe. But after the rapprochement with Europe, the EU, in part, supports Gaddafi's refugee and deportation policy. By Charlotte Wiedemann

Muammar Gadaffi, Nauel Barroso (photo: dpa)
Libya has not ratified the Geneva Convention on Refugees; yet the country is nonetheless being integrated into the deportation policy of the European Union

​​They collect garbage and haul sand across construction sites. They sit on street intersections with tin buckets full of water, crying out "Wash car, wash car."

They wait in the shade of walls for a job for the day, typically the dirty work that many Libyans shun. Foreign labor is everywhere in Libya; an estimated two million migrants live in the country, alongside a native population of around five million.

Gaddafi's pan-African politics made it easy to cross the border in the past. Libya became the immigration and transit country for poor sub-Saharan African migrants. In decrepit fishing boots from the Libyan coast to Italy or over the barbed wire in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, these are the two major routes from African to Europe.

Alone in the first nine months of this year 15,000 refugees were picked up on the coast of Italy. An estimated 1000 Africans drown every year before the coasts of Sicily, Lampedusa, Malta.

Large wads of cash inside worn plastic bags

For this reason many migrants try to work in Libya until they have saved enough money for a plane ticket. Many car washers in Tripoli constantly carry around with them a dangerously large wad of cash inside a worn plastic bag.

In Sebha, Libya's only large city in the Sahara, one sees how a journey, which often lasts for years, creates a transient, semi-legal settled life. From here it is still 800 kilometers to the coast; here debts have to be paid off to the people smugglers. To do so, some female migrants begin working as prostitutes.

"Street 40" is the name of Sebha's foreigner district; mostly Nigerians live here. No asphalt, the low, garage-like buildings with workshops and shops, whose customers are also migrants, are as sand-colored as the soil. A rudimentary hair salon with no washbasin. In a restaurant-bar called "Holiday Villa" men watch a Nigerian film and dream of Holland. This parallel world even has schools, in which children are taught in African languages.

More industrious and reliable than young Libyans

Libyans are ambivalent toward these sub-Saharan Africans: on the one hand, they reject them, blame them for the high crime rate, the drug trade, AIDS; on the other hand, they are preferred laborers in many trades, because they are more industrious and reliable than young Libyans.

Such laisser-faire for economic reasons contrasts with an increasingly rigorous policy of deportation for strategic motives. Cooperation with the European Union in its refugee policy began nearly two years ago when Libya sought rapprochement with the West. Starting last year Italy has been deporting immigrants to Libya without reviewing their reasons for seeking asylum. And Libya itself deported 6000 people in grand style by the end of last year alone.

The deportation prison near Sebha was once a police barracks in no man's land, favorably situated near the street heading to the Nigerian border and to the airport. White walls topped with barbed wire, glaring floodlights, in the evenings they can be seen from afar in the flat, empty land.

At first they were deported overland; impoverished Niger allegedly sent them back, because it could not feed the transit returnees. Then they were deported by plane.

Libya has not ratified the Geneva Convention on Refugees; to file an application for asylum with its officials is legally impossible, and not even the mandate of the local UN refugee association is formally recognized. That Libya is nonetheless being integrated into the deportation policy of the European Union, lawyer Giumma Attiga commented: "European countries have only their own interests, their own security in mind. They have little interest in human rights."

Torture in Libyan prisons? – Yes, of course

Giumma Attiga, a former political prisoner, is director of the Libyan "Human Rights Society." When asked if torture is used in Libyan prisons, he replied: "Yes, of course."

Such findings have not deterred the British government from signing an agreement with Libya: at least on paper Libya has agreed not to mistreat deportees from England.

Of late, however, Libya also has domestic reasons for stemming the flow of migration: many Libyans fear the loss of their own social security as the state economy undergoes privatization. Of 360 state-owned companies only sixty-two have been privatized so far.

Unemployment is now officially at 10.6 percent; in reality, far more – above all young people – are without jobs. To keep unemployment in check, the government has started offering subsidy programs and early retirement – and it wants to implement the principle: Libyan jobs for Libyans! This especially applies to qualified jobs in foreign companies, but is also directed against the masses of migrant workers.

Libya's Minister of Labor Matuq Mohamed Matuq announced in an interview with Qantara.de that in the future migrants will have to present at least 500 dinars (312 euros) in cash before they can cross the border and they will need a work permit.

The idea of an entrance fee sounds absurd in the face of a 4000-kilometer-long desert border – but Italy has already declared its readiness to provide the military needed to secure it.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Qantara.de 2005

Translated from German by Nancy Joyce

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