Waiting to Cross

Asmaa Waguih

In a crowded room at a detention centre in Zawiya in western Libya, women from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Eretria, Benin, Liberia, Chad and Niger told me they wanted to go back home. The men who weren’t locked up were gathered separately in a few rooms, or outside cooking on a small fire and listening to rap.

‘You wouldn’t really want to go home after all the money and effort you’d spent,’ Fathy al-Far, the local head of the Annaser International Organisation for Development and Relief, told me. Especially when you have it on hearsay that 'Europe is easier to reach than before'. Instead of a twenty-hour trip to Lampedusa, the migrants are now told it’s only a two-hour trip to the relief agency ships a few miles from the Libyan coast. ‘It doesn’t look as risky as before,’ al-Far said. The rumour is that 'someone is waiting to pick you up from the sea.’ Even so, more than 4000 people have drowned trying to make the crossing so far this year.

Libya has long been a major transit country for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In the 2000s bilateral arrangements with Italy and, later, a substantial commitment from the EU, turned the coastal cities into immigration and customs outposts with detention facilities for asylum seekers, and funds for charter flights to send ‘illegals’ back to sub-Saharan Africa (thousands were flown home between mid-2003 and the end of 2004). Human Rights Watch reported in 2009 that the EU was offering €20 million to Gaddafi to build new accommodation centres and €60 million for ‘migration management’ along his country’s southern borders. In 2010 he signed up in the name of ‘migration co-operation’. The numbers of migrants have risen since he was killed in 2011. The EU has tried various measures to reduce them, largely by focusing on interception and targeting smugglers. The latest anti-smuggling initiative, Operation Sophia, began last year, but it has done little to deter people from attempting the crossing. More than 153,000 migrants arrived in Italy in 2015; the number for 2016 is more than 164,000.

‘Sophia has made it easy for small scale smugglers to get lots of migrants on board with minimum costs,’ the head of one detention centre told me. ‘It takes $300 to get a rubber boat with an engine, and support it with wooden floats. They teach one of the migrants how to steer it and give them directions.’ And then they're off on their own, leaving the smugglers to work the shoreline and organise a new round of departures. To make even more money, the smugglers put 120 migrants in a boat that can’t take more than 40 or 50; give them only half a litre of drinking water each; strip them down to their bare essentials and even make them take their shoes off to reduce weight.

The EU's intrusions into Libyan territorial waters are unwelcome, as far as I can tell. There’s also anger about the Hungarian prime minister’s suggestion that the EU should set up a ‘gigantic refugee city’ on the Libyan coast. Libya's foreign minister, Mohamed Taha Siala, said that handling hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers was beyond the capacity of his government: ‘The crisis in our country makes the proposals unrealistic.’

In April, the Italian foreign minister called for an agreement between the EU and Libya to organise immigration flows into Europe, along the lines of the (faltering) deal with Turkey. But Libyans don’t see why they should bear the burden of fighting illegal immigration to Europe with detention centres and repatriation programmes. Migrants who agree to go home are taken by car to the southern city of Sabha, from where the African Union flies them to Niger.

But there are too many migrants for the fragile Libyan state to deal with. ‘Every day we catch hundreds of them, even though we do not have the necessary resources, we pay for their food and medical services, we help the pregnant women to deliver their babies in good hospitals just like Libyan women,’ a relief worker in Surman told me.

As I drove west along the coast from Tripoli to Sabratha, I passed a series of security checkpoints manned by different fighting factions. There’s no clear central government in Libya, so even if some kind of deal were made with the EU it would be ineffectual. General Khalifa Haftar has seized the oil ports, but his hold on them is tenuous and smugglers are still able to make pirate oil runs.

One story going about is that people smugglers from Sabratha are in cahoots with Italian NGOs, who pay them on delivery: ‘They take some for a man, a bit more for a woman, and much more for pregnant women,’ I was told. ‘The EU needs migrants to work in agriculture and construction,’ a relief worker in Surman said. ‘Europe has always benefited from illegal immigrants, especially the young Africans,’ an official in Zawiya said. ‘Some die and some arrive, but they are all victims of EU policies.’ They are also under huge pressure from their extended families to make the journey and send home the remittance. The push factor, in a globalised world full of unconfirmable promise, is as strong as the pull factor.