Mark Townsend, Guardian Unlimited (Manchester), January 13, 2008
Up to a million migrants have gathered in Libya, from where they will attempt to sail across the Mediterranean for Europe and, ultimately, the UK.
New estimates reveal that there are two million migrants massed in the North African country and that half of them plan to sail to the European mainland and travel on to Britain in the hope of building a new life.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), most have travelled from sub-Saharan states such as Ghana and Sierra Leone, attracted by Libya’s reputation as a centre for people smugglers. Most are expected to wait until the spring, when the seas are calmer, before making the crossing on unseaworthy and crowded vessels.
European border authorities have opened negotiations to police Libya’s vast desert borders. Last week, the Italian government struck a deal with Libya to hold back the thousands who try to reach Italy.
The issue is highlighted in tomorrow’s BBC Panorama programme, which details how European leaders tried to reach an agreement with Libya, a country that until recently was named by Britain as a state sponsor of terrorism. Of the thousands of African boat people who enter Italy each year, about 80 per cent are believed to make their way to France or the UK, with the latter their preferred destination.
The risks, however, are great. Researchers for the programme managed to track down a number of those seen in last year’s startling images of refugees clinging to a vast tuna net cast loose on the Mediterranean.
The photograph, taken by the Italian port authorities last May, showed 27 refugees whose decrepit wooden dinghy had sunk off the Libyan coast. Eight months later, nine of the men are living in a former Italian military camp paid for by the government.
Atiko, a 23-year-old Ghanaian who still dreams of making it to England, is scraping a living from begging. He said that scrimping for food was preferable to stealing.
‘Begging is better for me. That will be better for me to do to survive,’ he said. ‘In my country, they used to speak English and I can say that I am not good enough in English, so I would like to be in Britain to polish my English,’ he added.
Most of those questioned by researchers admitted that England was their dream destination. ‘England is my target . . . I would be very happy if I am living in England,’ said one.
A quarter of Libya’s population are migrants after the country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, tried to style the country as the hub of a United States of Africa and opened its borders to the rest of the continent.
‘It would be accurate to say you’ve got about a million people in Libya who are looking to get to Europe at some time in the future,’ said Laurence Hart of the IOM. ‘The numbers setting sail from Libya are so great that half of the military budget of Malta—350km from North Africa—is spent trying to deal with migrants sailing north.’
Italian authorities recently constructed special hotels on Lampedusa, a splinter of rock only a few hundred miles from the Libyan coast, which has become the first point of call for thousands of illegal immigrants trying to get into Europe each year, crossing the Mediterranean on makeshift rafts and overloaded fishing boats.
The centre, which was partly funded by the European Union, boasts a fully equipped mini-hospital, with two doctors and two nurses on 24-hour duty.
Many of those who make the journey pay up to £1,000 to people smugglers. Some find jobs in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, selling bits of meat from discarded goat carcasses or carrying bags of sand to fund their journey.
Old fishing boats are crammed with up to 30 migrants a time. European border agencies have stepped up patrols by boat and aircraft to try to stop migrants leaving Africa.
However, Libyan authorities are worried that these efforts might prove too successful, ending up with stranded migrants putting too much pressure on the country’s resources. Experts warn that patrolling Libya’s southern border, which runs thousands of kilometres across the Sahara desert, would be a massive undertaking.