Italy – part II
What is this post about? Read part I on Italy here.
Before the Arab Spring, and before the Tunisian people rose up in anger, Lampedusa was silent. When I visit early in January 2011 the stream of sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants who once used the sleepy island as a port of entry to Europe have disappeared. A quiet life resumed for the Italian island’s 6,000 inhabitants. Once again visitors were moneyed tourists and not destitute explorers.
High up the craggy hills of the small island stands the desolate 850-place immigration reception centre, once home to 1,800 migrants as they waited to be processed into the European Union, or deported back across the sea to Africa. Islanders say the centre closed after inmates set fire to it during riots in the summer of 2010.
Before the silence, people from all over Africa entered Europe through similar Italian and Spanish islands in the Mediterranean, their determination unruffled by the thousands who drowned at sea before them. In 2008 nearly 40,000 migrants arrived in Lampedusa; yet numbers dwindled to single digits in 2009 and 2010. Why did they stop coming?
The answer can be found in the European Union’s asylum and immigration third country policy, an effort to build special partnerships with governments in countries whose nationals try to enter Europe irregularly.
The dramatic drop in people using Lampedusa as a way into Europe was a direct result of the Italian government’s decision to create a special partnership with Libya. The Friendship Treaty between Libya and Italy was signed in 2008. Libya’s side of the deal included preventing all asylum seekers and migrants getting to Italy. The Libyans, one of the few countries in the world not signed up to the Refugee Convention, were chillingly efficient.
“When we came to Libya I thought that we were free, but we were not free,” says Abdarrazaq (pictured), a 26-year-old Somali refugee living in Sicily.
The softly spoken economics graduate travelled to Italy via Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya. It took 10 days to cross the Sahara desert, packed into a 4×4 car with 29 other frightened people, all terrified of being caught without papers. On arrival in Libya the situation worsened.
“We were put under house arrest,” he says. “There was a man who captured us and said if you don’t pay $600 you die.” While unprepared for the violence, Abdarrazaq had expected this, and carried plenty of cash to bribe officials. Abdarrazaq could be described as middle class. As a teacher in Somalia, he was not rich enough to immigrate to Kenya, as his wealthier countrymen could, but he earned enough to save for his clandestine journey to Europe.
He is still shaken by what happened to him in Libya, and not just the brutality of the country’s border guards, but by the treatment he received from ordinary Libyans. “All Libya [is] like that. They capture [us] and they say to you if you don’t pay the money, you stay here, in his house. In this house, there is a family. This is normal how they do it because they get money from [migrants].”
The Libyans who abducted the group Abdarrazaq was travelling with in Ajdabiya, north Libya, beat them until they agreed to pay up.
“One person, one man got his leg broken. He refused to do what they say. Then finally he paid $400.”
This was not the only time Abdarrazaq was kidnapped as he made his way across Libya. He was captured and beaten by police officers and imprisoned for three days until he handed over $1,000. After several weeks, he was finally able to leave Tripoli on a boat bound for Italy carrying around 300 other migrants. Those without cash to bribe rogue officers and smugglers, were left to languish in Libyan jails or abandoned in the desert.
Abdarrazaq’s story seems fantastic, but his account corresponds with numerous reports from the UNHCR and other human rights’ groups, all documenting Libya’s brutal treatment of migrants. I met a young Eritrean refugee working for Caritas in Calais who could not discuss the “horrific stories” from his time in Libya.
Though Muammar al-Gadaffi is dead and gone, it is unlikely his policy of pushing back migrants and asylum seekers crossing Libya on their way to Europe will end. The Libyan National Transit Council has promised the Italian government that once stability has returned, the ‘push-back’ of migrants will resume. The killing and hounding of black African migrants mistaken for mercenaries during the Libyan revolution last year indicate that the violence and abductions are also likely to continue.