Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane/Pretoria)

Libya: A Bleak Future for Illegal Immigrants Stuck in Nation

Addis Ababa — "Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in," said Col. Muammar Gaddafi of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya speaking at a ceremony in Rome in late August (2010), while standing next to Italy`s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Gaddafi went on to say that the European Union should pay Libya at least 5 billion euros (£4bn; $6.3bn) per year to stop illegal African immigration and avoid a "black Europe". European Commission figures show that in 2009 the number of people caught trying to enter Italy illegally fell to 7,300 from 32,052 in 2008. The data was collected under the EU`s fingerprinting system.

Human trafficking in Africa has been a topic of much discussion in recent years. The number of young African men and women traveling illegally to Europe, running away from poverty or unemployment in their home countries, are from regions of Africa that stretches from South Africa to Tunisia in the North.

The sheer numbers that have made this journey in search of a better life have been staggering. In all these countries a lack of financial resources and economic opportunities for young people have motivated their quest for a better life in Europe. Millions of migrants, primarily from Asia and Africa, have short-term employment contracts for low-wage jobs in the construction, domestic work, and service industries across the Middle East and Europe.

Most of the movement has been from sub-Saharan Africa to Southern Europe, through Arab-speaking North Africa, which sometimes turns out to be a harsher place to be than what awaits them in Europe. The situation becomes somewhat ironic in the light of the statement by the 'Brother Leader`, Gaddafi, that he should be compensated for 'hosting' the illegal immigrants. After the experience of xenophobia in Libya, Europe would appear even more desirable to most illegal migrants and these would surely not want to return to Libya.

According to the media there are officially around one million foreign workers in Libya, a country of six million people, but the unofficial total of foreign workers, many of them staying illegally, is closer to two million.

Over the years, reports have surfaced of harsh, sometimes xenophobic, behaviour by Libyans towards black African migrant workers. In 1998, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern about Libya's alleged "acts of discrimination against migrant workers on the basis of their national or ethnic origin."

In 2000, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions issued a condemnation of "racist attacks on migrant workers" in Libya. Migrant workers from Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria were the victims of such attacks by Libyans targeting black migrants.

This followed a government-ordered crackdown on foreign employment, and state-sponsored news reports portraying African migrants as being involved in drug-trafficking or illegally, and immorally, dealing in alcohol.

In 2004, the CERD addressed the issue by pointing to the responsibility of Libyan state authorities to prevent acts of prejudice and discrimination against black Africans. The CERD also expressed regret that Libya had failed to provide detailed information about its resident non-citizens, despite earlier requests made by the Committee.

The Committee noted Libya's failure to meet its obligations, in respect of the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), to assure everyone within its jurisdiction of effective protection and suitable remedies to guard against racially motivated attacks. Such protection should be provided through the competent national tribunals and other State institutions, against any acts of racial discrimination which violate human rights.

It also comprises the right to seek from such tribunals just and adequate reparation or satisfaction for any damage suffered as a result of such discrimination. Libya has since denied the numerous accusations of racism directed against the country, and has claimed that migrant workers were enjoying all the rights accorded to Libyan citizens.

There are a number of reasons for people from sub-Saharan Africa journeying across the Sahara desert for many days to cross the border into Libya illegally, and facing all the accompanying hardships. These might range from looking for employment to improve conditions for family members back home, to looking for asylum and making a living in a foreign country.

Nevertheless, the root causes are a combination of economic insecurity at home, contrasting with the pull factor of a glossy and ''promising'' image of the country of destination. Some even equate their situation with modern day slavery; being enslaved by poverty.

It is true that many African governments invest more in regime and state security needs than human security needs, without giving attention to the human factor in security. In addition, activities by human traffickers invariably prevent modest attempts by governments to exert their authority over these criminal gangs, thereby enabling criminals to undermine public safety and the security of vulnerable populations.

Nonetheless, some governments are managing to introduce preventative and corrective measures to counter human trafficking in individual African states. For example, Ethiopia has made specific reference to issues of human trafficking in Ethiopia's Criminal Code, specifically Article 598, by reference to the trafficking of women and children, enslavement, and the Unlawful Sending of Ethiopians to Work Abroad.

Even if Ethiopia's efforts to prevent international trafficking brings about some progress,  measures to heighten awareness of internal trafficking that include increasing the capacity of the police and personnel working on this issue, remain negligible.

With regard to external trafficking, the government has continued to ban its citizens from traveling to Lebanon, Syria, and Qatar for the purposes of seeking employment. In July 2009, the government also signed a bilateral labour agreement with the Government of Kuwait that included provisions for increased cooperation in countering human trafficking.

Eden Yohannes Yoseph is an intern in the Peace and Security Council Report programme of the Institute for Security Studies.

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