08 August 2011

The invasion that is not there. From Libya 23,890 refugees

We had already written about it in February. That the numbers of landings from Libya were not those of the announced biblical exodus , so dear to the Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni and much of the Italian press. And that in the worst case scenario one might expect the arrival of a number of war refugees equal to that of the people who embarked for Lampedusa in 2008, the first year of rejections, when Gaddafi encouraged departures towards Italy to raise the stakes of the negotiations with Rome. That year they reached 36,900 people. It was a record that to date, despite the NATO bombing of Tripoli, is still far from being surpassed. The confirmation can be found in the most recent figures from the Interior Ministry in the briefing to the Chamber of Deputies of 3 August. Since the beginning of the year 23,890 people from Libya disembarked in Lampedusa and in Sicily, in other words 65% of those who arrived throughout 2008. And the pace of arrivals is in sharp decline. In the second half of July, for example, there were no landings for over two weeks. Yet the sea was calm. Which is a real mystery. Because at the moment, reasons to stay in Libya in the midst of war just don’t exist.

Every day the front draws closer to the capital, where in the last week many young Libyans have been arrested, suspected of being close to the insurgents in Benghazi. The tension rises higher and higher. And when the armies of thuwwar (revolutionaries) enter Tripoli, we can expect a bloodbath that will reap victims especially among the Africans, accused by the rebel propaganda of being mercenaries paid by Gaddafi. Reason for which in recent months the city has emptied out. Many Libyans have fled to Tunisia, not to mention Rome and Dubai. And among the foreign workers residing in Libya, more than 630,000 have crossed the border with Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan, including approximately 200,000 sub-Saharan nationals who have returned to their countries. Statistics are provided by the IOM, which continuously monitors the situation on a dedicated web page. If one considers that the presence of foreigners in Libya was estimated at one million people and many have left the country without leaving a trace at border control, especially those who fled via the desert, we can estimate that virtually all foreigners who were present in Libya have now left. And almost all by land or air.

Yes, because six months ago, when the hostilities began on February 17 in Benghazi, the airport in Tripoli was still functioning and the roads were passable. And this enabled hundreds of thousands of people to flee to safety by reaching neighboring countries or returning directly to their country of origin with their own money or with the help of IOM and their own embassies. But today it’s a whole other story.

Since the beginning of the No Fly Zone, there are no air links. And leaving Tripoli by land means crossing the front and passing through the rebel-controlled territories, where blacks risk their lives because they are considered to be the escapees of the ranks of Gaddafi’s African mercenaries. And so, to leave the war behind, the only way left is the sea.

The journey is risky, but the departures are frequent and free. Organized by the regime. Boats depart from the ports of Zuwara and Janzur and the commercial port of Tripoli, in Medina. Old fishing boats seized by the army are crammed to capacity. To depart, all you have to do is show up at the ports. Usually, after a few days of waiting in the hangar you are assured boarding. And if there are not enough passengers, the matter is taken care of by the militias of the regime who find others, with the same brutal methods used up to a year ago, applied in the name of the agreements with Italy when it came time to expel someone. In other words, through raids, street by street, house by house, to take away the Africans of Tripoli and to forcefully load them onto the boats heading north. Like what happened to the family of Kingsley, deported from the city of Misratah before the withdrawal of government troops, to the family of Lazhar , deported from the neighborhood of Shara Ashara in Tripoli, and to little Said Islam , deported from Sebha.

The first consequence of the military management of the landings is the insane amount of passengers who are forced to board each boat. Imagine that 23,890 refugees who arrived between March and July from Libya traveled on only 84 boats, which means an average of 284 passengers per boat, on vessels 10 or 15 meters in length. An insane figure, to be compared with the 62 passengers per vessel when the route was run by private smugglers (Dallal, as they are called in Amharic, or samsara, as the Arabs say) who until 2009 managed the course.

A fact that on one hand gives us the measure of the resolve of the Libyan regime to deport to Italy as many people as possible, in retaliation for the bombing of Tripoli. On the other hand it helps us understand how the very real massacre was possible, consumed from March onwards in our waters, where at least 1,674 people lost their lives, 239 deaths per month, eight per day: a hecatomb.

To conclude the statistical picture, to the landings from Libya one must also add the landings from Tunisia and the landings in Puglia and Calabria.

As for Tunisia, 24,854 Tunisians have arrived since the beginning of the year, particularly between January and April. Around 14,000 have obtained a six-month residence permit on humanitarian grounds, granted by decree from the Italian Government to all Tunisians who arrived before 5 April. Of the others, about a thousand have been repatriated and just as many returned of their own accord after seeing that in Europe they had no chance to work. While hundreds are still detained in the identification and expulsion centers, and others are scattered all over France, Germany and Italy, without residence papers, some for the first time, others returning after having been expelled in the past.

As for the other routes, 3,047 people have landed on the coast of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily on boats from Egypt, Turkey and Greece.

Summing up the data from the various routes, we arrive at the number of 51,881 landings in the first seven months of this year. And yes, this is a record that brings to mind the 50,000 who arrived in Puglia in 1999 at the time of Kosovo. And that marks another record.

That of the arrivals on the island of Lampedusa, where at the beginning of the year 44,639 people passed through compared to the roughly 31,000 in 2008 and only 205 last year, when the Libyan route was finally closed by the expulsions from Italy and by overseas raids by Gaddafi’s Police.

All this thinking about numbers helps clarify two points.

The first is that we are talking about numbers which are easily managed by a national plan of reception, also given the exceptional state signified by the war in Libya in terms of duty of hospitality and international protection to those who have fled from war, whether they be natives of Libya or not.

The second point is that from the total number of refugees caused by the war in Libya, only 3.6% chose Europe as an escape route. If our rich countries are complaining, what should countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Sudan say, where more than 600 thousand people have arrived?

translated by Camilla Gamba