After Gaddafi: Hope for African migrants in Libya?

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“Like A Man On Earth” was made in 2008 by an Italian and Ethiopian film team. The same year as the $5 billion “Friendship and Cooperation” deal between Gaddafi and Berlusconi, with European Union (EU) support, to control migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. In effect, Libya became an “external frontier” of Europe, a concept integral to the operation and title of the European Border Agency, Frontex.

Bought and Sold
The human cost of the 2008 deal is spelled out in this poignant but pointed film. Dagmawi, an Ethiopian migrant who eventually reached Rome, films nine others as they reflect on their experiences in Libya and of what became of the friends they lost. They explain how they were bought and sold like commodities between Libyan police and smugglers. This deal involved extorting money from the migrants, desperate to continue their onward desert journey in overcrowded container trucks. “The prison had become a business centre” says Fikirte about Kufra detention centre in south-eastern Libya, near the Sudanese border. John describes the “going rates” of different racketeers – bought for 15 dinars, sold on for 30.

Over a map of Libya, Mimi traces seemingly endless journeys, back and forth between prisons in Libyan towns and cities on a map that is now more familiar to Europeans: Kufra-Ajdabiya-Benghazi-Tripoli, back to the start at Kufra again, to a hellish detention centre built with Italian funds. Sad but dignified, they tell of beatings, starvation, rape and racism at each point. “Nobody lives through the experience and stays normal” says Tighist.

The film ends with Fikirte saying “I don’t want to remember all this but I want it to be exposed in the hope that solutions can be found for everyone who’s there going through this ordeal”.

“Most Libyans would be ashamed”
The screening of the film and following panel discussion was organised jointly by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) and the African Affairs Network, based at the University of Sheffield. Representatives from these groups were joined by Bereket Kahsai of the Eritrean Community Organisation of Sheffield and Dr Abdelbasit Gadour, recently appointed Cultural Attaché of the Libyan Embassy in the UK.

Dr Gadour, clearly moved by seeing “Like A Man On Earth”, said that “most Libyans would be ashamed of what was in the film” and that it reminded him of the brutality of the Gaddafi years. Bereket Kahsai explained why people were prepared to go through so much pain in order to escape the prison-state of Eritrea. He hoped that the new Libyan government would stop the practice of deporting Eritrean migrants back to face persecution. “Eritrean people don’t have bad feelings towards Libyans” he said, reminding us that both Eritrea and Libya had suffered under Italian colonialism.

The “structure of abuse”
A number of speakers drew attention to the role of the Gaddafi-Berlusconi-EU deal in forming the “structure of abuse” and asked if the new Libyan authorities, the National Transitional Council (NTC), would treat migrants any better.

Would the NTC – unlike Gaddafi – sign the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees?

Dr Gadour: “I’m sure it will”.

Why did Mustafa Abdeljalil, the head of the NTC, re-affirm the old 2008 Gaddafi/Berlusconi deal on March 28th 2011, again on June 16th and once again on September 30th?

Dr Gadour: “He’ll maybe regret what he said”, qualifying his answer by stressing the “transitional” nature of the NTC.

I quoted from the 2008 deal, reaffirmed by Mustafa Abdeljalil and former NTC Prime Minister Mahmud Jibril, that Italy would provide “equipment and facilities” in “combating illegal migration”. These were the very same shipping containers that were shown in the film, packed with 110 people locked in and left in the Sahara desert waiting for the next racketeers to arrive.

Dr Gadour: “Libyans would not accept these inhumane things”, suggesting that the apparent agreement with Italy on migrants would not necessarily be the policy of an incoming Libyan Government. Perhaps Mustafa Abdeljalil’s words had been misquoted or taken out of context Dr Gadour suggested.

“Mercenaries”?
This timely chance to question a representative of the new Libyan Government was taken up by many students, refugees and activists. There were questions about the NTC’s relationship to NATO and western oil companies; anti-semitism towards Ethiopian people in Libya, the nature of the NTC’s proposed Sharia laws.

Replying to the many reports of victimisation of sub-Saharan migrants and other black people on the basis that they served as mercenaries for Gaddafi, Dr Gadour claimed that Gaddafi “used Africans to kill his own people” and that this perception could make it difficult for Libyans to accept black African migrants.

Concerns were raised about Libya’s vast migrant population – around a quarter of the total population – would they be targeted as “mercenaries”? Would they enjoy full workers’ and citizenship rights in the new Libya? Despite acknowledging their key role in the Libyan economy, Dr Gadour gave no particular assurances regarding their safety or status in Libya.

Fortress Europe
Points were made about Frontex, the European Border Agency: the UK Government’s complicity in its operation and funding (€92.4 million in 2010); Frontex’s claim that up to 1.5 million migrants were “ready to risk anything” to reach Europe from Libya (in fact only around 30,000 have this year) and the growth of “Fortress Europe” with its external border controls, as in Libya.

Mention was made of the audacious “Boats For People” project which aims “to strengthen Euro-African solidarity with regard to migration and the defense of migrants”.

In the film, Frontex (who declined an invitation to attend the meeting) explain that “we have to act before the border where the problems are”.In September 2011 they received an extra €24 million from the EU to “manage migration and refugee flows started by events in the southern Mediterranean”. In October, the European Parliament voted to give Frontex unprecedented powers to buy or lease its own military equipment.

Guarantors of Stability
Summing up, Bereket Kahsai reminded us that the Eritrean dictatorship was still untouched by the revolts in the Arab world, though Eritrean president Isias Afewerki would have watched with fear as his ally Gaddafi lost everything. But while Afewerki held power many Eritreans would continue to look for safety and a better life outside their country. Bereket added that UK and Canadian mining companies felt free to continue to exploit Eritrea’s mineral reserves, relying on the dictatorship as a “guarantor of stability”.

For Frontex and the EU, Gaddafi was their brutal “guarantor of stability” until this year. Will the new Libyan Government accept this role too?

By Stuart Crosthwaite (MRN)

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