Migrants trip from Libya to Lampedusa

Gamal Nkrumah , Saturday 3 Mar 2018

Thousands of African people have thus far drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to seek a better life in Europe, with thousands more having been lost in the Red Sea

File Photo: Rescued migrants arrive on board a coast guard vessel at the harbour of Lampedusa (Reuters)

The trip from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa is a treacherous one across the Mediterranean Sea, but it does not deter some African people desperate to seek asylum or a better life in Europe.

The rickety vessels used are not seaworthy, and it is a miracle that many of them manage to make it across the Mediterranean. More than a million such migrants, including scores of Egyptians, have crossed into Europe using this route since 2015.

The backlash over the influx of refugees has left some Italian politicians and political parties vulnerable, however, and today the Italian political establishment is in disarray. It is also not only Africans who are fleeing war-torn regions to find safety in Europe. Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants have also featured prominently.

Europe itself is often the cause of the problem. Migration is “fuelled by a structural demand for cheap labour in informal sectors,” Hein de Haas, director of the International Migration Institute at Oxford University in the UK, has noted.

Libya is the major departure point for Africans, while Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans often prefer the land route across Turkey to Europe. Last year alone, some 10,000 Syrians went to the UK, preferring it as a destination because most have some knowledge of English.

 The overland journey via Turkey, Bulgaria and Albania is equally treacherous and can be just as dangerous as crossing the Mediterranean.

The rugged terrain of the countries concerned, coupled with the constant menace of having to bribe clan chieftains, border guards and human traffickers, is a constant threat to migrants, most of whom, contrary to conventional assumptions, are not from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another misconception is that most migrants just want to reach Europe, since in fact they are more likely to have certain countries in mind. Pre-eminent is Britain, and, for asylum applications, Germany.

While the media has tended to focus on drownings at sea and rescue operations, conditions elsewhere can be equally grim.

The so-called “Calais Jungle” outside the French Channel port of Calais has become synonymous with human misery and degradation, and thousands of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have been stranded there waiting to get to Britain.

Humanitarian conditions are often dire, especially in winter when the weather is icy cold.

Meanwhile, migrants of all nationalities face especially tough conditions in Eastern Europe, where Hungary has had the highest number of migrants in proportion to its population.

The recent surge of racism and xenophobia in Eastern Europe and the rise of extreme right-wing political parties have accentuated the plight of refugees and migrants in Eastern Europe.

Hungary, for instance, has closed its borders with Croatia, hoping to shut out asylum-seekers and migrants from the Balkans.

Poland’s anti-immigration policy is also very severe. Of 5,000 applicants last year coming to Poland, only 520 were granted asylum.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated that immigration from Africa to Europe is relatively insignificant in comparison with overall migration internationally.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IMO), around 4.6 million African migrants now live in Europe. European migration policies regarding such people vary from one country to another, and the European Union has been unable to agree a common immigration policy.

In Libya, African migrants, including a large number of women and children, are often stuck in deplorable conditions. Many are systematically detained and have no access to food. Malnourished children can die of hunger.

The camp guards in Libya can also be cruel, and the current political instability in the country makes matters worse. Access to healthcare is almost non-existent, and the processing of migrant applications is a slow process.

Many Sub-Saharan African inmates in Libyan prisons have been subjected to psychological pressures. Most cannot leave Libya without paying a bribe that in many instances can be as high as $500.

Such problems have been compounded by the fact that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi championed African causes. It is almost as if some Libyans are now seeking revenge on Africans in the post-Gaddafi era as a way of repudiating the late dictator.

Another complicating factor is that two of the world’s most active refugee advocates, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the IMO, are under tremendous pressure to reduce their operations worldwide.

There is a widespread assumption that all the African migrants are from West Africa, though this is not entirely true. A majority may hail from West Africa, but there is a growing number of migrants from East Africa, and in particular from the Horn of Africa.

Human rights groups are concerned that in some cases Egypt and Sudan may have repatriated African migrants back to their countries of origin. Even though both Egypt and Sudan accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, most East African refugees consider the two North African nations to be conduits as they head for Europe.

Many Somalis cross the Red Sea to neighbouring Yemen. Most settle in the port city of Aden or in the Yemeni capital Sanaa and other cities such as Taiz. Yet, Yemen is in the grip of a civil war, and many Yemenis are fleeing the war-torn South Arabian nation.

Some Somalis head for the oil-rich Arabian Gulf nations, but due to the fall in international oil prices, countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, once magnets for migrants, may now be reluctant to admit more.

The majority of African migrants do not perceive Yemen as their final destination, and many would rather leave for Israel.

Israel itself has in recent years deported thousands of Africans, mainly Eritreans, Ethiopians and South Sudanese. The Israeli government has in some cases offered to give African migrants $3,500 if they leave the country within the next 90 days.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged as an ardent advocate of deporting migrants, even though ironically Israel was a nation that included many Jewish refugees from Europe.

The African migrants will be given the option of either going to their home countries or third countries. If the African migrants refuse to leave, the Israeli authorities have threatened that they will start jailing them in April 2019.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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