Per­ilous pas­sage from Libya to Italy is claim­ing more lives of mi­grants des­per­ate to reach safer shores and escape per­se­cu­tion and wars

Bangkok Post - - MIGRATION - By Lizzie Dear­den

As right-wing politi­cians across Europe call f or “eco­nomic mi­grants” to be de­ported or even left to drown in the Mediter­ranean Sea, an­a­lysts say the term is di­vorced from the har­row­ing re­al­ity faced by many of the men, women and chil­dren risk­ing their lives to reach safety.

The pas­sage from Libya to Italy, the dead­li­est cross­ing in the world, is now the dom­i­nant route af­ter the con­tro­ver­sial EU-Turkey deal aimed to close the com­par­a­tively safer and shorter path over the Aegean Sea.

Libya has been a draw for peo­ple seek­ing work across Africa for decades and the prospect of high wages and abun­dant con­struc­tion work is still lur­ing mi­grants un­aware of the chaos and vi­o­lence that awaits. Over five years af­ter Bri­tain and al­lies mounted a mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion against Muam­mar Gaddafi, the coun­try re­mains di­vided be­tween a frag­ile gov­ern­ment, Is­lamic State and more than 1,700 sep­a­rate armed groups.

Mi­grants and refugees are fre­quently kid­napped by gangs in ex­change for ran­soms, be­ing beaten, raped and tor­tured in squalid makeshift pris­ons, while oth­ers are de­tained in labour camps or forced into pros­ti­tu­tion un­til they pay their way out. With routes out of Libya con­trolled by mili­tias and many bor­ders closed, the only escape is flimsy rubber boats sent into the Mediter­ranean Sea by smug­glers, who threaten to shoot any­one at­tempt­ing to re­sist be­ing packed into the over­crowded dinghies.

Ear­lier this month, The In­de­pen­dent joined the largest hu­man­i­tar­ian ship in the Mediter­ranean to ob­serve its search and res­cue op­er­a­tions as hun­dreds of flimsy dinghies con­tinue to be launched from the Libyan coast. Of the 868 mi­grants and refugees taken aboard the ship in just 10 hours of res­cues, many said they had not set out to start a new life in Europe.

Diomande Habib, a 26-year-old man from the Ivory Coast, told how he was work­ing in Gabon when he heard about op­por­tu­ni­ties in Libya. “My friend said there used to be a war there but now it’s a coun­try un­der con­struc­tion, so I thought I could go there and get a good job,” he said.

Mr Habib paid a smug­gler 150,000 CFA francs (9,000 baht) to drive him eight days through the desert to reach what he thought was a land of op­por­tu­nity, but he was kid­napped and im­pris­oned soon af­ter his ar­rival in Novem­ber 2015. “We would go three days with­out food and then they would give us a piece of bread to share and some wa­ter,” he re­called. “They beat us, they beat us all the time.”

Mr Habib does not know who the gang who de­tained him were, de­scrib­ing them as “ban­dits” who de­manded a 200,000 CFA ran­som in ex­change for his free­dom. He called his fam­ily but the money never came. Af­ter three months he was freed when a ri­val mili­tia broke into the prison dur­ing bat­tles, re­leas­ing the hostages, and he walked to Tripoli where he was fi­nally able to meet a friend and get a job.

But Mr Habib’s tri­als were not over. His new em­ployer did not pay him for his labour and when Mr Habib de­manded the agreed amount, he said the man threat­ened to kill him. See­ing no way back to Gabon or his home coun­try, he boarded a smug­glers’ boat into the Mediter­ranean.

Among the other res­cued mi­grants on the boat was Ali Ibrahim Sal­man, a Syr­ian man who moved to Libya for work in the 1990s. When the rev­o­lu­tion that would lead to the oust­ing of Gaddafi and civil war started in 2011, he re­turned to Syria with his fam­ily, only for bat­tles be­tween Is­lamist rebels and gov­ern­ment troops to later reach his home­town in Hama prov­ince. “I went back to Syria but it was too dan­ger­ous to stay,” he said. “My baby was killed. He was in the bed­room when the Is­lamists fired a shell. The shrap­nel flew through the win­dow and he died.”

Mr Sal­man is plan­ning to join rel­a­tives in Swe­den and later be joined by his fam­ily, but hopes one day to re­turn home.

Refugees who have sur­vived labour camps have given hor­rific ac­counts of beat­ings and tor­ture, in­clud­ing gang rape, as well as dis­ease and star­va­tion killing de­tainees who face death if they at­tempt to escape. One of the men taken aboard the res­cue ship on a stretcher had a bul­let wound in his leg that had frac­tured the bone in two places. He was shot just six days be­fore the res­cue while try­ing to flee a de­ten­tion cen­tre, nar­rowly es­cap­ing with his life.

Leav­ing Libya via land is not con­sid­ered an op­tion, with wide­spread re­ports of bor­der guards and mili­tias shoot­ing those try­ing to get out, even set­ting one man on fire, and gangs steal­ing pass­ports and doc­u­ments to make le­gal travel im­pos­si­ble. An­a­lysts say the des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion is mak­ing at­tempts to sep­a­rate “eco­nomic mi­grants” from “refugees” in­creas­ingly ob­so­lete as those who orig­i­nally have set out for work be­come vic­tims of vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion.

Marta Foresti, in­terim ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Over­seas De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute, said the sit­u­a­tion was ad­di­tion­ally com­pli­cated by chang­ing de­ci­sions on routes to Europe that can take months or even years. “The idea that mi­grants and refugees leave their homes to jour­ney to Europe is not the ma­jor­ity,” she said.

“Peo­ple who gain vul­ner­a­bil­ity be­cause of the jour­ney it­self get trapped by this in­creas­ingly neg­a­tive la­bel of ‘eco­nomic mi­grants’. The whole idea about these two cat­e­gories of refugees and mi­grants is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­help­ful — most peo­ple ar­riv­ing are some­thing of a mix be­tween the two.”

There is no le­gal def­i­ni­tion of an eco­nomic mi­grant but the in­creas­ingly pe­jo­ra­tive term has be­come linked to peo­ple ar­riv­ing from the Mid­dle East, Asia and Africa, rather than work­ers from more af­flu­ent coun­tries in Europe and the US. Right-wing par­ties and groups across Europe have called for those ar­riv­ing to be de­ported, or for res­cue mis­sions in the Mediter­ranean to stop in the be­lief it will dis­cour­age those risk­ing their lives to flee Libya.

Now the dom­i­nant route to Europe, the pas­sage be­tween Libya and Italy has be­come the dead­li­est in the world, claim­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of al­most 4,700 lives lost in at­tempted sea cross­ings so far this year. The death rate in the Mediter­ranean Sea is the high­est ever recorded, with hun­dreds of mi­grants drown­ing in a suc­ces­sion of dis­as­ters last week alone as boats con­tinue to be launched in wors­en­ing win­ter weather.

Around a quar­ter of al­most 345,000 mi­grants and refugees to have ar­rived on Europe’s shores this year are Syr­ian, fol­lowed by Afghans, Nige­ri­ans, Iraqis, Eritre­ans and other na­tion­al­i­ties.

PER­ILOUS SEA: Mi­grants ask for help from a dinghy as they are ap­proached by a ship off the coast of the Ital­ian is­land of Lampe­dusa.

VUL­NER­A­BLE: Res­cued mi­grants board the Bour­bon Ar­gos ship dur­ing an op­er­a­tion co­or­di­nated by Medecins Sans Fron­tiers in the Mediter­ranean Sea last month.

RES­CUE: A Nige­rian wo­man and her baby are helped onto an Ital­ian navy ship.

CON­FLICT: Fight­ers of Libyan forces al­lied with the UN-backed gov­ern­ment take po­si­tion in Sirte.

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