The boat sways perilously through the rough waters, leaving the 200 plus occupants huddled together in mortal fear and cold, some clutching dog-eared bibles and other religious paraphernalia praying the rickety vessel remain in one piece for the next 100 miles. Originally built to carry 40 fishermen, in this trip the rotting boat is overloaded five folds.
Welcome to the Mediterranean, the southern border of “Fortress Europe” and the watery graveyard for thousands of disgruntled African refugees making a run for the European mainland.
Most of these immigrants are citizens of West Africa, mostly Nigerians, and Horn of Africa nations pushed away from their homeland by wars, harsh economic conditions and the fantasies of a Europe flowing with milk and money.
According to media and non governmental organizations’ statistics more than 10,000 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe since 1996. The worst incidence was in March 2009 when two boats carrying around 250 people each sunk off the Libyan coast after encountering bad weather. Only less than a hundred people were rescued.
These ill fated trips are facilitated by powerful criminal organizations run by Nigerians and North Africans with strong networks in Europe. According to a United Nations report released in 2006, these corporate criminals receives 300 million dollars annually for their clandestine services of bribing officials, document forgery, purchasing boats and fitting them with Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigation.
After paying around US$2500 to these trafficking organizations the would-be immigrants are herded in Senegal, Mali and Niger from where they embark on the perilous Trans-Sahara drive. Although the porous 5,000 km Libyan border is a wide open door overcoming the hostile desert is a major test of tenacity.
Besides the risk of getting a sun stroke from the scorching heat, there is also the possibility of the truck engine stalling from sand choke, the driver loosing the way or abandoning the passengers in the middle of nowhere and the threat of being attacked and robbed by desert bandits. The international press places the figure of those who have died trying to cross the vast sea of sand in the last five years at 2,000 but this is a very modest number since according survivors dozens die every month.
Although there are those who make a run for Spanish waters through the Canary Islands majority enters Libya in the hope of sailing across the Mediterranean to Europe. But since most are poor they have to earn their place in the boats by working in the informal sector in Tripoli and other urban centers.
After paying an approximated US$1000 to smugglers the aliens are ferried across the dangerous Straits of Gibraltar in overloaded and unseaworthy boats or canoes to the Spanish islands of Barbate, Algeciras, Gibraltar and Malaga. In 2008 alone Spain police intercepted 14,000 illegal immigrants and 663 illegal vessels. The Spanish authorities detain these “sin papelles” (undocumented illegal immigrants) temporarily before sending them back to their country.
However majority pass through Lampedusa, a tiny island south of Sicily which though it belongs to Italy lies geographically closer to Africa than Europe. Landing here most often attracts beatings, arrests and detention in the NAZI-like Temporary Holding Centre awaiting deportation back to Africa, most often to Libya. The very few lucky ones, mainly Eritreans and Somalis, are granted asylum owing to instability in their homelands.
More than 1,800 immigrants are sometimes packed into the detention centre designed for 850 which pushes others to squatter in makeshift plastic shelters littered all over the compound. The camp has been renamed the Centre for Identification and Expulsion after its role was changed in January.
According to UNHCR, around 36,000 “boat people” made it to Italian soil in 2008-a 75 percent increase compared to 2007 figures-which means the country absorbed half of the 67,000 immigrants who arrived by sea in Europe.
“We don’t want to become the Alcatraz of the Mediterranean,” complained Bernardino De Rubeis, the mayor of Lampedusa. “The inhabitants of the island are not racist and we are not angry with the immigrants, but we don’t want a structure on the island that will end up as a sort of prison.”.
While commotion reins the surface of this haunted sea, capitalism flows unhindered deep in its belly. Running for 520 km from Mellita in Morocco to Sicily through the same route followed by immigrants seeking to land in Lampedusa is the longest underwater pipeline in the Mediterranean called Greenstream. Among the bones of thousands of would be immigrants buried in this watery grave eight billion cubic meters of gas pumps annually from Africa to Europe. Perfect embodiment of the Rome-Tripoli business pact founded under the slogan “more oil, less immigrants”.
Since it’s not a signatory of the Geneva Convention Libya does not recognize refugees hence those illegal immigrants deported back to this country are physically abused and subjected to a life of misery in the numerous detention centers. The ongoing civil war has made the situation worse for these Africans with most fleeing back to their homelands and those who remained being executed by rebels in the belief that they are mercenaries under Muammar Gaddafi’s payroll.
But long before the war, the deposed Libyan despot and his regime was mistreating the poor souls besides using them as a bargaining chip with European powers.
“It was October 2007; I was coming back home with two Malian friends and a Congolese, when the taxi we were inside has been stopped by the police. We have been immediately brought in a detention camp for illegal migrants in this city (Tripoli)” says a 29-year-old Cameroonian who entered Libya illegally in 2007.
Investigations by independent journalists and NGOs have shown that, on various occasions, the Libyan and Moroccan authorities arrested and abandoned large numbers of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the desert where many die of hunger and thirst.
Besides damping the desperate Africans in the inhospitable Sahara without basic survival kits, the Gaddafi regime signed an accord with Silvio Berlusconi in 2009 giving the Italian Guardia Costiera a license to intercept shiploads of immigrants in the high seas and turn them back to Libya. According to estimates by the Italian news agency Ansa, more than 1122 illegal immigrants were forcibly repatriated to Libya in the quarter of 2009 alone.
In return the conservative Italian government was to build a 1,200 kilometer highway, stretching from the Tunisian border in the west to the Egyptian frontier in the east, as a compensation for colonizing the Maghreb nation from 1911 to the World War II. This was besides the US$5 billion to be extended in investments for the next 25 years, building of immigrants holding centers in the Libyan coast, donation of patrol boats and training personnel to man them, holding joint military exercises among other goodies. But with the fall of Gaddafi last month, the future of this financial pledges remains unclear.
“As non-Africans, these students have shown their support for these Africans, against an African Union chairman who continues to be used against his own people by Berlusconi, who has made some very unacceptable statements about African migrants” commented an Italian students on his protesting colleagues who jeered and hurled paint on the Libyan leader during his visit to Italy in 2008.
There are so many immigrants’ detention camps in Libya today that European media sometimes refers to the country as the African “Guantannamo Bay”. But the suspected terrorists detained in the famous Cuban island live in far much better conditions than the masses of despondent humanity wallowing in these Libyan facilities. These refugees lives in deplorable conditions in the camps as they wait for expulsion back to their countries, done after the purchase of a release ticket either by their relatives back home or their native governments.
“Until 2007 the medium length of detention was less. In that period the Libyan government would transport migrants on its own, but as their presence grew, Libya decided their families or their countries owed them this service.” Said an anonymous Libyan immigration official before the fall of Tripoli last month.
The unofficial alternative is through bribing the corrupt jail wardens who demand up to US$1000 per prisoner. With up to 60 people living on crude bread and water in a five by six meters stone cube cells, sleeping on a cold floor and subjected to a daily life of humiliation and harassment, these are World War II concentration camps save for the gas chambers.
Things blew up in the evening of August 2009 when around 300 hundred immigrants, mostly Somalis and a few Eritreans, incarcerated at the Ganfuda detention camp near Benghazi tried to escape. The Libyan police descended on them with a murderous zeal, beating blindly with knives and batons and leaving six refugees dead, a dozen missing and more than fifty seriously injured. Despite censorship by the secretive Gaddafi regime one of the prisoners recorded the incidence through a cell phone and leaked the photos to the internet.
But this is not the only case of violence against foreigners in this North African country. In September 2000 gangs of xenophobic Libyan youths triggered by a minor dispute during a football match went on rampage, killing black immigrants, burning houses and looting property in foreign occupied suburbs of Tripoli like Gregarage and Abhuzin.
Libyan authorities claimed to have counted only 33 bodies but eyewitnesses said more than 500 were killed.
“It was so fierce. It was so horrible. It was so terrifying that even the Nigerian Ambassador himself could not withstand the situation.” One immigrant said. “Some others were unable to come out in the cross fire. They Died. But mine was only injuries sustained from machete cuts.” He added.
These led to forced repatriations where thousands of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sudanese, Gambians, Chadians and Nigers were returned back to their homeland, some leaving property and businesses they had spent years building.
Despite “Brotherly Leader” Muammar Gaddafi attempts to distance himself from the ethnic attacks by blaming the violence on “hidden hands” determined to scuttle his dream of “the Union of African States”, interviews with those fleeing the violence said that the gangs of youth acted with the complicity if not direct support of state forces.
Although Libya has the largest number of sub-Saharan Africa immigrant detainees in North Africa, thousands of other are imprisoned in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania.
Those without the courage or cash to embark on these precarious journeys sneak their way into merchant ships as stowaways by colluding with corrupt ship crews, hoping to land in Europe or America. Ironically, while two hundred years ago Africans were being forced to cross the Atlantic chained in ship holds today they are paying or stealing their way into ship holds to cross the same ocean.
Many governments in the world severely punishes vessels found harbouring stowaways, hence those discovered by the ship crew are either tossed overboard in the high seas or cast adrift in makeshift rafts.
In 2006 a group of five men and four women trying to get to Europe from Gabon ended up landing in a desert beach in Namibia, 2,500 km in the wrong direction. Their fate was sealed after being discovered by the Chinese crew who cast them adrift on rafts made of steel drums, with just a small bottle of water and a bag of uncooked rice for provisions.