Saturday, May 31, 2014

Understanding the surge in migrant boat crossings to Europe - IRIN Global |

JOHANNESBURG/TRIPOLI, 29 May 2014 (IRIN) - Italian newspapers have recently been full of reports of countless rickety boats conveying thousands of desperate migrants to its shores. 

Since the beginning of the year, over 38,000 irregular migrants have arrived in Italy, most of them coming ashore on the tiny island of Lampedusa south of Sicily. This is a significant jump from the 4,290 who made the crossing during the same period in 2013, but Italian officials have suggested that it represents only the tip of the iceberg. 

Last month, the head of Italy’s Immigration and Border Police agency was widely quoted in the media telling a parliamentary committee that 800,000 more migrants were poised to depart the North African coast for Europe, a figure which he later admitted was “not a concrete projection”.  

While worries in Italy and throughout the European Union are focused on how many more migrants will come during the usually busier summer months and where they will go, a small number of researchers are trying to understand what has prompted the surge in migrants using this route and where they have come from.

All roads lead to Libya

According to Italy’s Interior Ministry, 31 percent of the sea arrivals so far this year were Eritrean, a significant increase from previous years. Another 14 percent were Syrian while other nationalities include Somalis, Ethiopians, Sudanese and West Africans from countries including Mali, Nigeria and Senegal. 

The vast majority of the boats are departing from Libya where smugglers have taken advantage of a security vacuum created by the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011 to establish routes for smuggling migrants and illicit goods from the country’s southern frontiers to its northern coastal towns. 

A recently launched report by the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) and the Danish Refugee Council examines evidence that migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa are increasingly willing to undertake the risky journey to Libya and then Europe as previously popular routes to Saudi Arabia via Yemen and to Israel via Egypt have become largelyclosed to them. 

The authors suggest that the flow of asylum seekers from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan who are “Going West” to Libya and Europe is increasing rapidly, despite the enormous risks associated with this route.  

“We can’t say for sure how many [migrants] are in Libya. We can say for sure the numbers are increasing,” said Melissa Phillips, a researcher with RMMS who until recently was a senior programme officer with the Danish Refugee Council in Libya.

Phillips noted the absence of monitoring at Libya’s southern land borders where the majority of migrants and their smugglers enter the country after perilous journeys through the deserts of Sudan, Chad and Niger. “There’s a complete black hole of information on Libya’s southern borders,” she told IRIN. “At the moment, the only reliable figures we have are for people leaving…

“There’s an unknown number of people who don’t make it to their intended dream [destination] whether it be to parts of Libya to work or to Europe,” she added.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 170 migrants have died since the beginning of 2014 trying to reach Europe by sea. How many died of thirst or hunger while crossing the Sahara is unknown, but the RMMS report describes the Sahara crossing as “even more dangerous” than the Mediterranean one.

In just one incident in April, Sudanese Armed Forces discovered 600 mostly Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants who had been abandoned by their smuggler near the Libyan border. Ten had died of hunger and thirst before the group was rescued.  

Many of the migrants interviewed for the RMMS report recounted how members of the groups they were travelling with had died from lack of food or water during desert crossings.

“Misery and insecurity” in Libya 

Their ordeal rarely ended after entering Libya. The country’s lack of an asylum system means that asylum seekers and refugees are usually viewed as irregular migrants. Although asylum seekers can register with UNHCR, the agency has no official status in Libya and the document it issues to asylum seekers is not universally recognized by Libyan authorities. 

Asylum seekers interviewed for a January 2014 report by Jesuit Refugee Service Malta, described living in constant fear of being arrested and indefinitely detained by Libya’s armed forces or by one of the militias that control large parts of the country. In some cases their captors were kidnappers who demanded exorbitant ransoms in return for their release. Conditions even in the state-run detention centres are extremely poor and medical care is usually unavailable. 

"Going to Italy, it is not necessarily our goal, but is because of misery and insecurity. In Libya, they target you with a gun"
survey of about 1,000 migrants conducted by the Danish Refugee Council late last year found that West African migrants in particular often wanted to remain in Libya to work and support their families back home, but that prevailing insecurity as well as increasingly difficult living and working conditions forced some of them to consider moving on to Europe. 

Camara Diagarida, a 24-year-old from Ivory Coast, came to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in March hoping to find work. “We come every day to the roundabout,” he told IRIN. “When a truck stops, we all run at it. If you are lucky, the boss will take you, but you can spend two or three days without working and sometimes, they don't even pay you.

“If I find the money, I will go to Europe. It costs about US$800 to $1,000. Going to Italy, it is not necessarily our goal, but it is because of misery and insecurity. In Libya, they target you with a gun, it is not for fun. In Europe, our brothers told us it is difficult to find a job, but at least they have security.”

Europe’s response

Following a shipwreck that claimed the lives of more 350 asylum seekers a short distance from Lampedusa in October 2013, the Italian Navy and Coast Guard launched Operation Mare Nostrum to intercept and rescue migrants from unseaworthy boats and prevent further tragedies. The mission has undoubtedly saved lives with more than 43,000 people rescued by the fleet’s five vessels during the past seven months, but anti-immigrant groups in Italy have complained about the cost to tax payers and argued that, by reducing the risk of the crossing, it is encouraging more migrants to make the journey. 

Recently Italy’s Interior Minister threatened to release migrants seeking asylum to other countries unless it receives more EU assistance to foot the cost of rescuing and processing migrants. 

Meanwhile, refugee and migrant rights groups argue that Europe’s focus on intercepting and rescuing migrants is misplaced. They point out that migrants, many of them fleeing persecution and conflict in their home countries, would not undertake such risky journeys if legal means were available for them to come to Europe. They have called for European countries to significantly increase the numbers of refugees they accept for resettlement, to relax the rules governing family reunification and to make it possible to apply for asylum or humanitarian visas via embassies in countries of origin or in third countries. 

“People are leaving by boat because the legal means aren’t there,” said Phillips. “There needs to be some legal opportunities to reach Europe and for Europe to show that it’s truly committed to burden-sharing with countries like Libya.”

Member states are funding a US$41 million mission to help Libya better secure and manage its borders through the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) to Libya. However, the mission, now entering its second year, has been severely constrained by Libya’s unstable security environment and its lack of a strong central government. 

“Libyan officials are open to our advice, but to be honest there’s a limited absorption capacity,” said Francoise Lambert, EUBAM’s press and information officer. “Local counterparts we’re working with are not always properly trained and someone you might have engaged with for a while, all of sudden is not there anymore.”

Insecurity in the south has prevented mission staff from visiting the southern border area where the majority of illegal entries into the country occur. Much of the mission’s work has instead focused on training coastguards to rescue and apprehend migrants attempting to leave Libya by boat. While part of that training includes talking about the importance of not violating migrants’ human rights and providing medical care, EUBAM’s mandate does not extend to the detention of migrants that usually follows their interception. 

EUBAM was launched in response to a request by the Libyan government for assistance, but it is clearly also viewed as serving the interests of EU member states who would prefer that fewer migrants reach their borders. 

“Training [Libyan] coastguards in keeping people away is absolutely the wrong way,” said Stefan Kessler, senior policy and advocacy officer with Jesuit Refugee Service Europe. “Asylum seekers are absolutely not safe there and then the coastguard hinders them from reaching protection somewhere else.”

Phillips agreed that trying to prevent people from reaching Europe was the wrong approach. “The problem is being looked at very much from a destination approach… but unless we look at transit and origin [countries], we’re only looking at one part of the story,” she told IRIN.

“We’re not understanding the scale and dimension of the situation in Libya and what’s driving people out of their countries of origin and what can be done to assist them either there or en route.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Migrants make desperate journey to the promised land - Telegraph

Migrants make desperate journey to the promised land

Libya stands at the crossroads of a 'biblical exodus’ of migrants risking all to make a new life in Europe, writes Richard Spencer in Gherian

Richard Spencer
They were brought together by the desert and parted by the sea. Together, the two Eritreans crossed the Sahara, stared down torture and death and finally made it to the Mediterranean.
Now Mohammed Kher is caged in a grim Libyan camp, unable to return home, his ambitions shattered by the coastguard vessel that overtook the flimsy craft he shared with 200 others.
Abdul Salam took another boat and has another life. He made it to Italy, then Norway and is starting afresh.

Captured migrants inside the detention centre at Gherian (DANIEL ETTER)
Their fates show the wheel of 21st century fortune at its crudest. Following yet more disasters in the Mediterranean, with scores more lives lost in two separate sinkings in the past week, there are also new calls for wealthy north European countries such as Britain, where so many are headed, to help in the response.
Libyan officials told The Telegraph that 250,000 illegal immigrants were now queuing there to cross, their paths eased by the collapse of the country’s security.
“The Libyan government has no control at all of the borders in the south,” said Col Ziad Ali Arhuma, the deputy head of the coastguard. He said the numbers arriving, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea and Somalia – and now Syria – was insupportable.
His words were backed by a threat from the interior minister, Salah Mazek, at a press conference at the weekend. “I’m warning the world and Europe in particular – if they do not assume their responsibilities, Libya could facilitate the transit of this flood,” he said.
Stopping the fleet of rubber dinghies and ageing fishing vessels that carry the migrants to Europe is an annual race. More than 25,000 have been picked up by Italian vessels alone this year, compared with 43,000 for all of 2013. Adml Giuseppe De Giorgi, the head of the Italian navy, described it last month as a “biblical exodus”.

Mohammed Kher, left, and other detained migrant from Eritrea in their cell at Gherian (DANIEL ETTER)
Libya says those crossing remain dwarfed by those left behind. “In Italy they took in 30 or 40,000 refugees in a population of 60 million,” Col Arhuma said. “Here we have 1.25 million in a population of 6.25 million.”
Mr Kher languishes behind the barred door to his prefabricated hut in the semi-desert near the town of Gherian, south of Tripoli. His story shows the lengths to which many will go to find a freer, safer or more prosperous life.
Eritrea has been described as one of the world’s worst human rights “black holes”. Like thousands of his countrymen, Mr Kher and Mr Salam had been forcibly conscripted into the army, a fate that can last a lifetime.
“I tried three times to cross the sea,” Mr Kher said. “I was in search of my rights. But each time I was caught. Now my mother has sold everything she has, her gold, her ornaments, our home and our cattle, so there is nothing left. There is nothing more I can do.”
His and Mr Salam’s Saharan crossing traversed countries afflicted by war, coups and harsh terrain. At one point, 32 people were crammed into a Land Cruiser when it crashed into a dune.
Mr Kher paid the gang that took him $4,000 (£2,375) and $2,000 more in bribes to Egyptian soldiers who stopped them and threatened to confiscate their vehicle. He paid $1,600 more for the sea crossing – a sum migrants say is now coming down further. His first attempt ended five hours out, when he was caught by the Libyan coastguard.
His family paid a bribe of $1,300 to release him for a second attempt and the whole process was repeated twice more, first when that ship’s engine failed in a storm and then after the Italian navy caught up with his next boat and put its occupants on a cargo ship back to Africa.
The fourth time Mr Kher paid his $1,600, the dealer ran away with the money. Left alone, he and his companions tried to make their own way to the coast, but were arrested.
Of the Land Cruiser’s original 32 people, though, he said he was the only one not to make it to Italy.
People trafficking is a centuries old trade and grew in Libya under the rule of Col Muammar Gaddafi. He took action following his rapprochement with the West, but he also used it to win more concessions, saying only he stood in the way of a “black Europe”.
When the 2011 Libyan revolution began, he re-opened the floodgates. It took until 2013 for the Libyan navy to be formed again. Now the entire coastline is patrolled by four navy ships helped by a motley collection of coastguard launches and volunteers in old pleasure cruisers.
Smugglers admit they have it easy. “Nowadays there’s no problem smuggling anything in Libya – drugs, weapons or people,” said one, speaking on condition of anonymity. “With the security situation as it is, there will be more people going every year.”
He justified his work, saying he was helping people to achieve their dreams.
But his villa and large car suggest his own dreams are also being realised. His role is to gather clients for the boats from middlemen in southern Libya’s smuggler towns. He reckons to make 100-150 Libyan dinar (£50-75) per person, sending “sometimes a boat with 2-300 people a week, sometimes per month”, he said.
“There are hundreds of people like me,” he added.
The migrants believe life will be better than at home; but then, that is often not hard. Abdulnabi Ismael, 26, and his friend Ibrahim Zakariah, 22, who arrived from Darfur in Sudan last month, described their own plans to cross.

Migrants being rescued by the Italian in the Mediterranean (AFP/GETTY)
Outside a house occupied by migrants in Tripoli’s old town, they said they hoped to go to Norway “because we know they do not send refugees back”.
Asked why they had risked the journey, they looked nonplussed. “There is a war in Darfur,” said Abdulnabi. Their village was burned to the ground last year.
Mr Salam, who made it, looks back on his journey with reawakened fear.
Speaking by telephone, he described how he had been beaten by smugglers with bars, robbed, detained, and lost at sea for three days, before finally his boat caught fire off the Italian coast.
“The Italians were rescuing the women at first, but the boat was catching fire so people started to jump in the sea,” he said.
He travelled via Milan and Germany to Norway, where he was allowed to apply for refugee status.
“I am planning to stay here and start a new life,” he said. “I am studying and I am very happy. At the same time I am very sad because others are still suffering to be where I am now.”
Italian ministers first started using the phrase “biblical exodus” a decade ago. The metaphors do not change, nor the torments of those who undertake it.
“When you go back and see everything that happened, I don’t know if I can say it was worth it,” Mr Salam said. “At the end of the day people have suffered, been tortured and even died. I ask myself why.”
Nevertheless, it seems Europe remains a promised land.

Italian Navy Resuce Immigrants Off The Coast of Tripoli