Where 10,000 Africans have drowned; and more will follow

Thursday October 15 2009

Gaddafi (right) sees himself as the great champion of a United States of Africa, but at the same time he signed a deal with Silvio Berlusconi allowing Italian forces to intercept African immigrants in the sea.

The boat sways perilously through the rough waters, leaving the 200 or so occupants huddled together in mortal fear and shivering from the bitter cold.

Some clutch dog-eared Bible and other religious items like rosaries, praying the rickety vessel remains in one piece for the next 160 kilometres. Originally built to carry 40 fishermen, in this trip the rickety boat is overloaded five-fold.

Welcome to the Mediterranean, the southern border of “Fortress Europe” and the watery graveyard for thousands of desperate Africans making a run for the European mainland.

A majority of these immigrants are citizens of West Africa, mostly Nigeria and Horn of Africa nations. They are fleeing the wars and harsh economic conditions of their homelands, but a few –it has to be admitted- are just lured by the fantasies of a Europe flowing with milk and money.

According to media and statistics, more than 10,000 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe since 1996. In the first half of 2009 alone more than 500 lost their lives.

The worst incident this year was in March when two boats carrying around 250 people each, sunk off the Libyan coast after running into bad weather. Only less than a hundred people were rescued.


These often ill-fated trips are sometimes enabled by powerful criminal organisations run by Nigerians and North Africans, with strong networks in Europe. According to a 2006 United Nations report, these networks receive $300 million 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$2,500 to these trafficking organisations (raised from family and friends who expect payback with interest) 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 the major test of tenacity.

Several reports have placed the number of those who have died trying to cross the dangerous desert expanses in the last five years at 1,677. However, this is a very modest number since according to survivors dozens die every month.

Although there are those who make a run for the Spanish shore through the Canary Islands, the majority go through Libya, then try to make it across the Mediterranean to Europe. But since most are poor or unemployed, they have to earn their place in the boats by working in the informal sector in Tripoli and other urban centres along the way.

In 2008 alone Spanish police intercepted 14,000 illegal immigrants and 663 illegal vessels.

However the majority pass through Lampedusa, a tiny island south of Sicily which, though it belongs to Italy, lies geographically closer to Africa than Europe.

The fact that these Africans pass through, or are deported back to Libya has introduced a nastiness in the country’s relations with other Africans.

Landing there most often attracts beatings, arrests and detention in the harsh 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.

According to UNHCR, around 36,000 “boat people” made it to Italian soil in 2008 --- a 75 per cent increase compared to 2007 figures. This means the country absorbed half of the 67,000 immigrants who arrived by sea in Europe.

While hell reins the surface of this haunted sea, capitalism thrives 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 salty water grave, eight billion cubic meters of gas pumps annually from Africa to Europe.

Meanwhile, the crisis continues to play itself out tragically back in Africa. Since it’s not a signatory of the Geneva Convention, Libya does not recognise refugees hence those illegal immigrants deported back to the country are physically abused in the numerous detention centres.

Investigations by independent journalists and NGOs have shown that, on various occasions, the Libyan and Moroccan authorities have arrested and abandoned large numbers of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the desert, where many die of hunger and thirst.
Besides dumping the immigrants in the inhospitable Sahara, the Gaddafi regime signed an accord with the eccentric Silvio Berlusconi last year giving the Italian Guardia Costiera a license to intercept shiploads of immigrants in the high seas and turn them back to Libya.

In return the conservative Italian government is building a 1,200 kilometre highway, stretching from the Tunisian border in the west to the Egyptian frontier in the east, as a compensation for colonising the Maghreb nation from 1911 to the World War II.

This is besides the US$5 billion to be extended in investments for the next 25 years, building of immigrants holding centers on the Libyan coast, donation of patrol boats and training personnel to man them, and holding joint military exercises among other goodies.  

There are so many immigrants’ detention camps in Libya today that European media sometimes refers to the country as the African “Guantanamo Bay”.

“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,” a Libyan immigration official said on condition he not be named.

The unofficial alternative is through bribing the corrupt jail wardens who demand up to U$1,000 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 detention centres have echoes of World War II concentration camps (without the gas chambers).

Matters blew up on the evening of August 9 when around 300 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 vengeance, leaving six refugees dead, a dozen missing and more than 50 seriously injured.

Despite censorship by the secretive Libyan authorities one of the prisoners who recorded the incidence through a cell phone leaked the photos to the outside world.

The history of violence against what it considers illegal African immigrants in Libya is long. 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 the foreigner-dominated suburbs of Tripoli like Gregarage and Abhuzin.

Libyan authorities claimed to have counted only 33 bodies but eyewitnesses said more than 500 were killed. Despite President 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 others are imprisoned in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania. 

It is easy in the moral outrage at how Libya and the other North African countries treat the African boat people from the Sahara to cloud the fact that, in many ways, they too are victims. Colonialism, resented as it was, has also created a strong feeling among formerly colonised people that the west has a right to pay back by letting them in.

Further, agricultural and other subsidies offered by the west, have made it impossible for African growers and producers of several primary commodities, whose products are cheaper, to export and make a livelihood. If European markets were more opened, it would reduce the flow of desperate African refugees to its shores because they would be gainfully employed in, especially, commercial agriculture.

For now, though, the tragedy of the “boat people” has become a humanitarian problem of massive proportions, and steps need to taken to discourage the dangerous journeys, and to treat those who are caught by coast guards and immigration authorities to be subjected to less degrading treatment.

As it is, today many governments in the world severely punish vessels found carrying stowaways. It is a measure designed to close the window that would open the door for human trafficking if stowaways were exempted.

However, as a result, stoways discovered by ship crews 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.

Mwaura Sam writes for Nation Media Group on Africa affairs.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.