Yet another ship crammed with migrants capsized this week just 18km off the Libyan coast, near the town of Tajoura. Well known for its seafood restaurants, Tajoura is also the plank that many migrants fearfully tread, in order to embark on the hazardous sea voyage to Europe. This weekend’s latest incident killed approximately 250 individuals, including many women and children. Libyan Navy spokesman Ayub Qassem told reporters, “There are so many dead bodies floating in the sea,” many of which will no doubt wash up on the Libyan shores in the coming weeks. These disturbing images should make Libya and the world sit up and take action, yet few here are surprised by the news, as interest has turned into apathy and the overriding voices claim there is nothing they can do.
Perhaps Libyans feel they have bigger fish to fry: petrol shortages, jobs, security and obstinate militias. Perhaps, more disappointingly, they don’t really care? The people dying on these ships are not fellow Libyans, but illegal migrant workers largely from sub-Saharan Africa. Chad, Mali, Ghana, Sudan and Eritrea as well as a steady influx of Syrian refugees make up the cargo. The sheer volume of deaths is shocking, 2,500 this year, let alone the frequency with which the shipwrecks occur.
“Perhaps Libyans feel they have bigger fish to fry”
The UNHCR states it is “alarmed at the death toll from boats sinking in the Mediterranean in recent days…five shipwrecks occurred over the weekend, leaving between 650 and 850 people dead or missing” with figures constantly being revised upwards. Three out of five of these shipwrecks occurred off the Libyan coast. “It was without any doubt, the deadliest weekend ever in the Mediterranean,” said the UNHCR’s Carlotta Sami.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are “more than 200,000 migrant workers in Libya, of which 7,000 are vulnerable and in need of evacuation assistance, transit or border reception, health services and psychosocial support.” Some migrants settle in Tripoli, but many go onto risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea, to reach the hallowed grounds of Europe. The arduous journey usually begins much earlier in sub-Saharan Africa, as migrants take advantage of porous borders and enter Libya from one of its six land crossings before making their way up north to the coastal towns. This Saharan crossing is almost as deadly as the sea crossing, as migrants risk hunger, theft, heat, people smugglers and militias to cross into Libya.
Libya surfin’…does anybody care what’s happening beyond
ON ARRIVAL TO the coastal cities, migrants are commonly arrested for being undocumented and either deported, detained in squalid detention centers or harassed, arrested, released and re-arrested by the authorities – until their lives become impossible. Not only are migrants held in disregard by the authorities, but their presence in such huge numbers only serves to highlight how overwhelmed and ill-equipped the nascent Libyan state is to deal with such an enormous transnational issue. The winners of this administrative turmoil are undoubtedly the human traffickers who make a fortune securing “safe” passage for migrants across the Sahara and the sea.
It is a badly kept secret that there exists an embedded racism within much of Middle Eastern and North African society towards sub-Saharan Africans and Libya is no different. In Libya, however, the prejudice is not wholly based on skin colour. Instead, resentment grew during the Gadhafi era, as the eccentric dictator promulgated Pan-African ideologies – most famously calling for a ‘United States of Africa’ – and spent huge portions of state wealth around the continent to foster this objective. Furthermore, the wounds are still fresh from the 2011 revolution, where it was believed that Gadhafi commissioned scores of African mercenaries to fight on his behalf alongside his loyalist troops and against the revolutionaries. A large number of African migrants remain in detention in Libya for this crime. Three years on, they still have no trial dates or hopes of freedom and have become an easy enmasse scapegoat for the former regime.
Grievances have an economic angle too. This is largely based on competition for jobs, particularly in the construction and labour markets, as migrants fill the roadsides touting for work in large numbers. Despite paying lip-service to the need to stem illegal immigration, Libya continues to benefit vastly from this cheap labour force and there remains little appetite to confront the issue as demand remains high. The main consequence of tacitly validating this well-trodden migrant route, is that it has transformed the Mediterranean, as the former Italian Prime Minster Letta termed it, into the “sea of death” and Libya is the sad departure point.
The southern Mediterranean countries are very much at the forefront of the issue, some 130,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, more than double the 60,000 recorded in 2013, with many arriving in Lampedusa, Sicily, Malta and Greece. Europe is now desperately looking to the North African countries to act as a unified bufferzone between the two continents. Yet, many argue, seeking to stem the problem once it’s only 10km away from a European shore is far too late. The issue and maltreatment of migrant workers must be tackled from its root causes.
THE AFRICAN UNION and EU must work in conjunction with civil society to challenge the underlying economic and social issues causing migrants to leave their home countries. Whilst simultaneously tackling the problems of porous borders and human trafficking rings. The UNHCR recently called for “collective European action to avoid further loss of lives at sea.” As far-right parties make significant political gains at a time of heightened European sensitivity to foreigners, the recent “death weekend” should be an urgent humanitarian wake-up call to all parties on both sides of the Mediterranean.
“It is a badly kept secret that there exists an embedded racism within much of Middle Eastern and North African”
Small steps have been taken and cannot be discounted, in April 2014 the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) presented 110 officers and trainees from Libya’s Naval Coast Guard with certificates for the completion of three types of training courses. Equally, there has been some attempt at unified cross-border action between Libya, the EU and IOM with the START project; a EU funded initiative, which seeks to stabilize at-risk communities and enhance migration management in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Although with the most recent civil strife this summer progress has been negligible and it is debatable how effective these initiatives can be.
The most recent spokesman on the issue is Angelina Jolie, visiting a naval rescue center in Malta last weekend in her role as UNHCR Special Envoy, the Hollywood actress claimed, “we all need to wake up to the scale of this crisis,” adding, “there is a direct link between the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere and the rise in deaths at sea in the Mediterranean. We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children’s lives on crowded, unsafe vessels; it is the overwhelming desire to find refuge.” The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres also added “we don’t have many chances to get this right…if it fails, many more lives will be lost at Europe’s doorstep.”
FOR NOW, ships overloaded with migrants in search of a better life and the promise of Europe will continue to sink, briefly making international headlines as they do so. However, as the prime location for departure, Libya must now take responsibly, confront the issue head on and prevent the Mediterranean from becoming Africa’s largest graveyard.