16 August 2011

What will become of the refugees from the war in Libya?

The year 2008 was a record year for landings from Libya. Thirty thousand people arrived in Lampedusa in the space of twelve months. Then came the rejections in 2009 and zero landings the following year. Now, with the outbreak of war in Libya, the crossings have started up again with the same intensity as before. The difference being that this time the tension in reception centers is skyrocketing. Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has decided that the refugees will be deported. And from Bari to Crotone, from Trapani to Mineo, we have witnessed protests, riots, clashes and arrests. So it's time to clarify the matter. Who are these people coming over? What has changed since 2008? And what will happen to the refugees from the war in Libya?

Let’s start form the year 2008, because since then everything has changed. At that time, those who arrived in Lampedusa were mainly Eritrean and Somali refugees, who left behind wars and dictatorships of the Horn of Africa. They travelled with adventurous Nigerians and Malians, Cameroonians and Ivorians, Egyptians and Tunisians, who came to seek fortune and work in Italy. The business of the crossings, from 1,000 to 2,000 Euros per passenger, was entrusted to smugglers in Libya, who with the help of intermediaries of all nationalities and with the connivance of corrupt local police, were guaranteed an annual turnover estimated between 50 and 100 million Euros per year.

But it was not only police officers that turned a blind eye. It was the whole regime, led by Gaddafi, to encourage departures to raise the stakes at the negotiating table with Italy and with the European Union, so obsessed with the issue of the landings. In fact, in 2009, right after the ratification by the Italian Parliament of the treaty on friendship between Italy and Libya signed by Berlusconi in Benghazi in the summer of 2008, the border was permanently closed.

It was not the rejections to stop the arrivals. After all, those expelled were little more than a thousand . All the others simply never left. Targeted arrests and special orders given to officials and mafia bosses were more than enough to permanently close off that season. Gaddafi had got what he wanted: compensation for war crimes committed by Italian troops during the colonial era. A result that won him international prestige and internal consensus among the leaders of former colonies, for having achieved what no one else to date has ever been able to achieve. A formal condemnation and payment of reparation. As symbolic as it may have been.

Yes, because $ 5 billion, payable over twenty years, are a pittance compared to the turnover between Italy and Libya for the extraction of oil and natural gas, reconstruction, and Libyan investment in Italian banks and large companies. In any case, since May 2009, the landings from Libya decreased to zero in 2010. But then the war started and everything changed.

The great exodus started up within the first days. Beginning in mid-February, when the three days of revolt for the liberation of Benghazi led to the deaths of more than 300 Libyan demonstrators and an unknown number of Gaddafi’s militiamen and of African workers. Ordinary people, against whom turned the uncontrolled anger of the population, still shocked by the violence and crimes committed by the regime’s militias and African mercenaries enrolled in its ranks. In fact, the Africans were the first to go. Followed closely by Tunisians and Egyptians, who represent the most important foreign communities in the country. And then workers from all over the world, including thousands of Chinese, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

Since then, the International Organization for Migration monitors the Libyan land borders and has calculated that more than 650,000 people have fled the country by land, reaching Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia. And this is a partial figure, because it does not take into account all those who have left via trucks that have illegally crossed the desert to the south. And of all those who left the country by plane while the air links with Tripoli were still functioning. Then the departures by sea began.

The first landings were recorded in March. With a certain delay which may have been expected. The reason was simple. In February Tripoli, too, took to the streets. And the demonstrations were severely and violently repressed. To the point that no one dared to leave the house. All the more so for the Africans, who feared being lynched in the streets if mistaken for Gaddafi’s black mercenaries. The conditions on the ground were too difficult for the smugglers, who three years earlier had managed the boardings, to go back to work. At least until the Colonel gave orders for the deportations for Italy to begin.

The intent was clearly a retaliation for the bombing of Libya. Initially, the scheme provided only logistical support. The vessels for the journeys were boarded directly at the Libyan ports (the commercial port of Tripoli, the military port of Janzur and the commercial port of Zuwara), and the price of the crossing was on sale. A maximum of 500 Euros per person. Directly assisting the boarding operations were Gaddafi’s military, backed by the same brokers expressly released from prison.

The first to leave were the Eritreans and Somalis. Little more than a thousand people who for over two years were stuck in Tripoli, including dozens of those rejected by Italy in 2009. Then the others began to leave. All professional workers: carpenters, masons, painters, welders, turners, mechanics, electricians. In short, the working class of Libya's economic boom of the post-embargo period.

People who had never thought about Europe. But who under the bombs made the only sensible decision: leave before it’s too late. Because the day the rebels enter Tripoli, there will be a bloodbath in the city. And the Africans will face what had already happened in Benghazi. They will find themselves in the crossfire, mistaken by some as collaborators of the insurgents and by others as mercenaries of the regime.

At one point, however, the departures to Lampedusa slowed down. Because there were no more people willing to leave, basically because Tripoli and all of Libya had emptied out. For a time, those in the refugee camps of Tunisia continued to leave, after having realized that Europe was not going to open a humanitarian corridor for evacuation, and returned to Libya to embark at their own risk. However, they were still few in numbers. So the regime ran for cover.

And so the forced departures began. Many have already told us about this. Of the raids performed by Gaddafi's militias, street by street, house by house, in the black neighborhoods of Tripoli and in the few other cities still controlled by the regime. Loaded onto container lorries to ports and forced to sail from there. The trip is free, kindly offered by the regime.

And so it happens, in times of war, that one is deported to Europe by the Gaddafi’s armies. A situation that has never been seen before. To which, however, the Italian government has offered a paradoxical response. They have cracked down on political asylum requests, namely conceding less documents for international protection than were given before the war.

At the time of the landings in 2008 in fact, three out of four people asked for political asylum and half of them obtained some form of international protection. Today, however, Maroni has announced a change in strategy: the Libyan war refugees will be deported. And the first responses of the territorial commissions for the recognition of refugee status have performed to the letter.

With the exception of Somalis and Eritreans, not expellable due to the critical situation of their countries (Somalia has had a civil war for the past twenty years, Eritrea is in the grip of Afewerki’s regime), mostly everyone else is being denied their asylum claims.

The theory is simple. The 23,000 refugees of the war in Libya arrived in Italy, are not Libyan apart for a few hundred people, and therefore can return to their country. However, since Italy does not have the means, either economic or logistic, to return such a large number of people in such a short period of time, moreover without the cooperation of the embassies of their countries, the only consequence of these choices will once again be to force people to ‘go underground’.

The factory operates at full speed. Every day, those who receive the denial, unless they appeal, become a ‘clandestino’. They will be forced to live for the following years without being able to work or rent a home. And without the means to independently return to their own country. And in a few years’ time, we'll find them in the streets, in the occupied buildings of our cities, in the ranks of the Caritas soup kitchens, and in the cages of identification and expulsion centers. Professional workers, people responsible for themselves and their families, transformed into people who are marginalized, assisted, and hunted by the police.

Yet only four months ago, in April, the government had approved by decree a humanitarian permit of six months to more than 14,000 of the 24,000 Tunisians who had arrived between January 1 and April 5. Now, what are the contraindications to repeat the operation? Is there any political assessment, or is it just the fear of losing more internal consensus among the most xenophobic and racist electorate of the country?

Meanwhile, however, the only bitter fruit of these policies is the anger that is brewing among the thousands of people who have arrived from a country at war and who have been parked in the mega centers, and who, after seeing the first denials of their applications for international protection, realize for the first time that in Italy they will have no chance.

translated by Camilla Gamba