Ebo got nervous when, in the middle of one night in 2003, he was taken to the beach in Zuwarah by the Libyan smugglers and saw the challenge he had taken on. He and two other fishermen from Ghana had agreed to be captains of a boat filled with migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. In exchange, they were to get free passage. They were told that they could refuse to go if the boat was not seaworthy or if the smugglers had overloaded it.
When they arrived at the beach the boat was already crammed with people waiting to push off. It lay so deep in the water that Ebo couldn’t even see the boat, only the passengers covering every inch of the deck. “Oh, my God,” he thought. “What have I done?”
Despite their reservations, Ebo and his fellow fishermen, whom I met in Naples, Italy, while conducting anthropological fieldwork among Ghanaian immigrants, made the journey and lived to tell about it. Many others didn’t.
For years, European countries paid Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to control the flow of African migrants like Ebo across the Mediterranean — even if the methods were inhumane. Now, armed Qaddafi loyalists are forcing migrants onto the high seas to protest the NATO airstrikes in support of Libya’s rebels. African and Asian migrants are the pawns in this brutal geopolitical faceoff.
The corrupt participation of the Libyan authorities in human smuggling to southern Europe is an open secret. Ebo told me his journey had been arranged by a group of young Libyan policemen. The Qaddafi regime itself has used migration, or the threat of it, for political leverage. Tellingly, when the protests broke out, Colonel Qaddafi warned Europe not of an oil embargo or new terrorist attacks but that “millions of blacks” could be on the way if he were overthrown.
On May 6, more than 600 asylum seekers and refugees were feared dead off Tripoli when their overcrowded boat capsized (or, in some accounts, broke in half). They are among the thousands of Africans who have died in the past decade trying to reach Europe.
The smugglers themselves never accompany the boats they send off. Rather, they look for migrants with seafaring experience and offer them a free ride if they agree to take a boat to Italy — not because the traffickers are worried about the safety of their cargo but because they know that too many missing people is bad for business. Now, the problem has expanded from human smuggling to expulsion at gunpoint, as migrants are forced to board ramshackle vessels.
European leaders, confronted by anti-immigrant fervor at home, have tried to buy Colonel Qaddafi’s cooperation. In 2008, Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, signed a so-called friendship pact with Libya (since repudiated) worth $5 billion. The deal involves access to Libya’s oil and gas riches as well as a crackdown on undocumented migration. Last October, the European Union offered the Qaddafi regime around $70 million to stem the flow of illegal migrants.
The Italian money has been used to finance Libyan detention camps in which migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are held for indeterminate periods. In 2009, the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta found that detainees had been sexually harassed, beaten and punished with stun guns. One migrant explained that her uncle was left for dead in a pile of garbage after being beaten and tortured with electric shocks; two days later, somebody realized he was still alive.
The willingness of European leaders to strike deals with Colonel Qaddafi demonstrates that high-risk, undocumented migration to Europe is no longer seen primarily as a humanitarian concern, but as a security threat that justifies harsh preventive measures. It also shows how close to betraying European ideals some leaders are willing to go.
As Colonel Qaddafi plays his migration card anew, Europe must ensure that the Mediterranean does not again become a mass grave for African asylum seekers.
In the short run, doubts have been raised about the willingness of European ships to provide assistance to people in distress as they are required to do under maritime law. Given the recent deadly accidents, and the fact that Europe has received less than 2 percent of the people fleeing Libya since the uprising began there, hesitation is unacceptable.
In the long run, Europe should learn from the situation in Libya that paying dictators to make “problems” disappear is not only morally bankrupt but also short-sighted. European leaders must seek commitments from any post-Qaddafi government to handle the challenges of international migration in an orderly and humane fashion. Instead of banishing asylum-seekers to detention camps in the desert, Europe should offer support to Tunisia and Egypt, which are struggling to assist refugees from Libya, and to southern European countries.
When Ebo and his fellow captains reached the high seas, the waves washed over the boat and the passengers panicked and moved to the other side and almost capsized the vessel. The captains got them back into position by shouting, whipping and begging, and eventually the Italian Navy picked them up. Two boats leaving on the same night disappeared, with 200 people never accounted for, Ebo told me.
After entering Italy, he stayed in Europe for five years, working in the construction and fast-food industries, but was then caught and deported in 2008. Today he is back in Ghana.
By Hans Lucht, an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen and the author of the forthcoming Darkness Before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Fringes in Southern Italy Today.