In Perspective

Written By: Catherine Macleod
Published: July 31, 2017 Last modified: July 31, 2017

The flow of migrants to mainland Europe and the UK, whether in or out of the European Union, whether our enfeebled Government lands a soft or hard Brexit (whatever they mean), will not stop. And if anyone in the UK believes we have an “immigrant problem” they should stop for a moment to consider the plight of Libya.

Coincidentally, as African and European ministers meet in Tunis this week to try to reduce the flow of refugees from Africa to Europe to about 20,000, I am in Tunis working with smart, clever Libyans desperately trying to make their beleaguered country work.

The Europeans, and the Italians in particular, want to deport illegal migrants and break up the smuggling rings. They want better training for the Libyan coastguard and a strengthened code of conduct for the NGOs operating in the Mediterranean. However it is dressed up, the Europeans want to drastically reduce the flow of immigrants, they want to turn them back, to make them Libya’s problem not theirs.

The negotiators in Tunisia, a country still reeling from the terrorist attack which overnight destroyed their tourist industry, and their main source of income, may tinker with the immediate crisis in the Mediterranean, but until they deal with the fundamental problems in sub- Saharan Africa not much will change, a view endorsed by the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

The problem for the negotiators, as the UNHCR, points out, is that Libya is merely the gateway to Europe, and its 1,100 mile coastline is regarded as a lifeline by at least 300,000 Africans trying to escape brutality, wars and starvation at home.

Gaddafi, with the help of funds from Italy, helped contain the migrant flow but as his control floundered, and Libya struggled to overcome its own domestic problems, the borders became ever more porous.

Libya, bordered by Egypt to the east, Sudan to the southeast, Chad and Niger to the south and Algeria and Tunisia to the west is a mecca for fleeing migrants. They criss-cross Africa to find their way to the Libyan coast, attracted by the possibility of better lives somewhere else. As one Middle East expert told me this week. “The reason people stay in the UK is because they are happy, can work and feed themselves, and will be looked after. That’s what Africans want too.”

40,000 migrants, escaped from Eritrea last year as they fled from a government with one of the worst human rights records in the world. The Somalians try to escape decades of armed conflict, and growing rebellion throughout the region. The Sengalese flee because so many of them are starving, the Nigerians because they fear the atrocities of Boko Haram, and the Gambians their brutal, authoritarian government. The reasons are many and complex, and will not be solved by improving the training of Libyan coastguards and helping NGOs turn back migrants in the Mediterranean.

The Mafia and smuggling rings, who make it possible for migrants to work in Libya to earn the money to pay them for their passage to Europe, often in unsafe, grossly overcrowded boats, operate openly. It is reasonable to ask the international community why they have not been tackled more seriously. Many of them even advertise their services on Facebook.

The UN aim to set up screening systems for EU-bound migrants in countries en route to Libya, and if that works the Libyans will be pleased. Right now, however, deep scepticism meets the efforts of the UN and EU agencies, which in some quarters are accused of exacerbating the migration problems. The agencies send out mixed signals, often accommodating English-speaking, skilled and strong Africans who are cheaper to employ than Europeans while at the same time sending back the poor, unskilled and dispossessed.

Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR’s new special envoy to the central Med­iterranean told the Guardian that “any remedy that focuses on trying to stop the flow of migrants at sea, such as a code of conduct for NGOs, cannot be the solution. The issue has to be addressed earlier in the countries of origin and transit.”

“There tends to be action against the small fry, like the people that steer the boats to Libya in return for a discount on the journey. They are not the people responsible for this system,” he said.

Libyans believe Libya alone cannot solve the immigration problems. They want the international community to focus on stopping wars, attracting jobs and ending corruption in Africa. Only
then, they say, will populations want to stay put.

They want the UN to fulfil its mandate, to focus on making peoples’ homelands safe and secure. Until we concentrate on improving the lot of people in their homelands, rather than securing our borders, mig­ration will continue and tensions will only increase. It’s a bleak prospect.