Life gets harder for Africans waiting in Libya for ticket to Europe

07.Sep.04,  first published by EUbusiness: read the original article here.

In the Libyan capital, tens of thousands of Africans wander around the medina and hang out on street corners biding their time until they can somehow make it to a new life in Europe.

No official figures exist, but their numbers are estimated at a massive 1.5 to two million out of a total population of just six million.

They come mostly from Chad, Niger and Nigeria, but include job-seekers from Egypt and, more rarely, other countries along the North African coast.

They usually find work on building sites, as street sweepers, or occasionally as window cleaners, car washers or cobblers under the city's arcades.

"I'm getting by while waiting," Alfred says laconically. Claiming to come from southern Chad, he earns between two and five Libyan dinars (between 1.5 and four dollars) a day moving sand on a building site.

What he's waiting for is a chance to leave the country on a people-smuggling boat headed for Italy, and from there head to a new life in France.

"But now it's getting more and more difficult to get out," he says.

Sub-Saharan Africans were for a long time welcomed by Libya, as part of its pro-African foreign policy, not needing a visa to enter the country, and re-entering easily if they were ever expelled.

But they are no longer looked on so kindly since Libya began working with European partners to control their numbers.

In August, Foreign Minister Abdelraham Shalgham spoke out against what he called an "invasion" of clandestine immigrants, saying he suspected Islamic militants were among the those entering illegally.

"Some neighbourhoods in Tripoli are entirely under the control of immigrants," Shalgham said. "They impose their laws, and drugs and prostitution are rampant," he charged.

The turning point came in autumn 2000, shortly after Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi proclaimed the formation of the African Union, when clashes between Libyans and other Africans at Ezzawiya outside Tripoli left six people dead.

In the face of accusations it was turning a blind eye to the flow of illegal immigrants to pressure Europe to back the easing of punishing sanctions, Libya then announced it was clamping down.

But Libyan authorities soon admitted they were having trouble patrolling their vast desert borders with Chad, Niger and Algeria, as well as more than 2,000 kilometres (1,300 miles) of sparsely inhabited coastline.

Since then, Libya has been calling for Europe to help pay to police the migrants, and detain, feed and process them before sending them back to their home countries.

Italy is due to start joint air, sea and land patrols with its former colony on September 15, and there has been tentative agreement on setting up migrant reception centres, run jointly with the European Union, in Libya or elsewhere in Africa.

In a meeting with Kadhafi last month, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that such joint operations "can be an example for relations between Europe and Africa".

Nevertheless, arrivals of illegal immigrants on Italian shores are up again this summer, causing humanitarian, political and security problems.

On September 3, 50 Egyptians were caught and returned to Cairo by the Italian coastguard as they tried to cross the Mediterranean from Libya in a fishing boat, having each paid 1,000 dollars (800 euros).

Ten days before that, Italian financial police based on the small island of Lampedusa rescued 275 illegal immigrants piled onto a 20-metre (66 foot) trawler that had set off from Libya. Most were Palestinian asylum-seekers.

Then on August 27, a Libyan military aircraft forcibly repatriating 76 Eritreans was forced down in Khartoum. A Sudanese court later jailed 15 of the deportees for the hijacking.

That repatriation had gone ahead despite warnings from New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch that those sent home risked imprisonment or even torture.

Tripoli said that it wanted to show its "desire to combat the growing flux of illegal immmigrants that is putting its relationship with Europe at risk".