Libya becomes a roadblock on the path to Europe

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 11, 2010 04:20 hrs

Her parents called her Fortuna, after the Roman Goddess of luck. But for the 22-year-old from Ethiopia, the last two years have been a string of disappointments and bad luck.

Fortunas plan of making it to Europe on a boat smuggling people from Libya to Italy - like her older sister did before her - failed. Just as she was reaching the end of her draining journey through the desert, Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi reached a deal with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to block migrants from Libya to Italy.

Now Fortuna shares a bed-sit with two companions in Libya and lives hand to mouth. Even though she is not Muslim, Fortuna always wears a headscarf when she goes out. She does not want to attract any attention.

She does not speak English and only a few words of Arabic.

'I have no idea what to do now, the path to Europe seems to have closed,' she says. She does not want to go back to Ethiopia - at least not yet.

Since May 2009, Libyan security forces have been on the hunt for people-traffickers off the coast of Libya. The traffickers used to take 1,200 euros ($1,525) from every illegal immigrant for the passage.

Anyone who still makes it onto the water risks being caught by a new fleet Berlusconi has implemented south of the island of Lampedusa and getting sent back.

The measures have shown quick results. According to the European Commission, over 32,000 illegal migrants made it to Italy in 2008. One year later, the numbers had gone down to 7,300.

International human rights organisations have criticised this approach, because none of the migrants that are sent back have any chance of being granted asylum in Libya. Libya is not a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees.

In principle, all illegal immigrants in Libya could be deported. But the authorities do not handle things very strictly, the director of the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tripoli, Laurence Hart, explains.

The IOM has, over the past four years, paid for about 5,000 plane tickets to take illegal immigrants back to their home countries. The returnees were also given financial aid to help them start a new life.

This initiative has some success stories. In one case, a group of 35 Ghanaians from the Nkoranza district went back home together and started a cooperative, which is now cultivating sunflowers.

Nobody knows exactly how many illegal immigrants from African countries are currently living in Libya. Experts estimate that there are about 1.5 million of them. About 2,000 people die on the desperate trek north every year.

According to a Libyan official, 1,000 to 1,500 bodies of illegal immigrants are found in the Libyan desert every year. They die of thirst when the traffickers vehicle gets lost in a sandstorm. Sometimes they run out of petrol, or the battery which keeps the satellite navigation device going dies. Or they run out of water.

Last year, about 600 bodies were found in the Mediterranean.

The streets of Libyan cities are more crowded with economic refugees from West and East Africa than before. This is because Libya turned open all 18 of its refugee detention camps July 15.

The approximately 3,700 detainees were given a three-month deadline: whoever manages to get passport documents from the consulate of his country of origin by mid-October can stay for the time being.

Abdullah from Niger has found a job at the city administration in Tripoli. The tall man in his mid-thirties is wearing an orange overall that is much too short for him. He is sweeping up foliage behind the Italian embassy.

He does not dream of Europe. He is afraid of the risky passage in a small boat.

'I do not want to die in the water,' he says.

He is hoping that he will be able to earn enough in the next eight months to return home with some money in his pockets.

In many ways, Libya's migration situation cannot be compared with that of other North African states such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, where many of the illegal economic refugees who try to make it to Europe originate.

'Libyans simply get a visa for their trip to Europe,' Hart says. Since Libyans prefer travelling in business class many European airlines that fly to Tripoli offer more seats than usual in this category.



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