Monday 11 July 2011

Unsafe in Libya, Unwanted in Europe: Exiles of the Arab Spring

The Independent, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

By Jerome Taylor

Hundreds of desperate migrant workers have gathered near Calais

In a derelict industrial complex to the east of Calais they shiver under their sodden blankets dreaming of a Europe that simply doesn't exist. Seney Alema and his friends are the northernmost vanguard of a human wave that has swept across the continent as Nato's bombs continue to pummel Libya.

While Europe has applauded the steady toppling of North Africa's dictators, the continent has been unwelcoming to the thousands of people who have fled the region – the separate states bickering over who should take the responsibility for the refugees' fates.

When the war against Muammar Gaddafi broke out earlier this year, people like Seney were trapped. European powers scrambled ships to evacuate their own nationals but sub-Saharan migrants, who did the kind of jobs Libyans simply didn't want to do, were left to fend for themselves.

As law and order broke down the beatings and robberies began. Some were press-ganged into fighting the rebels, others simply disappeared. So thousands are now fleeing across the Mediterranean in barely sea-worthy boats, hoping that somewhere like Britain will give them shelter.

"I didn't really like my life in Libya but at least it was some kind of life," explains Seney, a 17-year-old Eritrean with a pencil moustache who had lived in Tripoli for four years. "When the war broke out I fled inhumanity in Libya but I find inhumanity in Europe."

Despite calls from France and Italy for the EU to "share the burden" of dealing with the migrant tidal wave that has been unleashed by the instability gripping north Africa – specifically Tunisia and Libya – Britain has refused to take in a single "Arab Spring" refugee.

Some East Africans caught up in the tumult are inevitably trying to head to Britain, where there are already sizeable communities of compatriots waiting for them. In the past few days small groups of such exhausted refugees have been arriving in Calais, after making a dangerous journey by boat from north Africa to the European mainland – usually Italy – and then up through the continent.

Their current home is a rubbish-strewn squat on the outskirts of town with broken concrete walls and no running water – euphemistically nicknamed Africa House. Night after night they try to smuggle themselves onto lorries heading towards Britain in a game of cat and mouse that often has fatal consequences.

Unlike the fleeing Tunisians – most of whom are economic migrants tricked by unscrupulous traffickers into thinking that Europe will welcome them – the east Africans from Libya bring some harrowing stories of a conflict that has unleashed a maelstrom of prejudice and violence against sub-Saharans across the country.

"As soon as war broke out Libyans turned on the black people," says Alemu Mkonere, a scar-faced 23-year-old who left Eritrea four years ago and wound up working as a labourer in Tripoli. "A lot of my friends were killed, many of them were Ethiopians. The police came looking for them and told them to fight for Gaddafi. We never heard from them again. Life was bad before the war but after it became impossible."

Eventually Alemu found a boat heading to Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island which has been inundated with migrants risking their lives to sail across the Mediterranean. "We nearly didn't make it," he recalls. "The pumps broke down so we had to scoop the water out to stop us sinking."

Last week brought reports that a ship carrying 600 people, mostly Somalians, had sunk off the coast of Libya. The UN estimates that 10 per cent of those making the crossing were drowned.

The official figures show that 10,300 people from Libya and 24,000 from Tunisia have landed on Lampedusa so far this year.

With populist anti-immigrant parties on the rise across Europe there is talk of abandoning the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which allows free border crossing between 25 countries (Britain has never signed up).

Denmark has already unilaterally announced that it is resuming border controls. Ministers will meet in Brussels this week at the behest of France and Italy to see whether temporary border measures can be brought in.

Many migrants in camps on the French side of the channel believe that tightening Europe's internal borders won't work.

Despite the turmoil in the Middle East, Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis still make up the vast majority of migrants in the Calais area.

One of them, Fouad Mousavi, a 23-year-old from Tehran who arrived in Calais five days ago, explained: "It's taken me eight months to get this far. In that time I crossed the Turkey-Iran border, where Kurdish groups kidnap you and Iranian troops shoot at you... You can put anything in front of me, I'll find a way around. I have no other choice, there's nothing left in Iran."

Despite the turmoil in the Middle East, Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis still make up the vast majority of migrants in the Calais area. But overall numbers are dramatically down on previous years. The UN estimates around 150 refugees are currently in Calais, a much smaller amount than the 700 that would normally be found at this time of year in 2009 and 2010. 

The behaviour of the French police – the CRS riot police and also the Police Aux Frontiers – towards migrants across north eastern France is to make daily life so unbearable for the migrants that they will do anything to try and cross the English Channel – or simply move on.

Raids on the squats and jungle camps are a daily occurrence. Refugees and relief workers complain that officers frequently pour water over blankets and spoil food. Migrants are routinely arrested, taken to a detention centre outside town, then eventually released to trudge back to their camps by foot.

As a result, the camps have simply spread east across the coast up into Belgium and the Netherlands. At the southern edge of the town of Grand-Synthe a small tented commune has sprung up in a wood containing Iraqis and Afghans.

Back in Africa House, where many of the new arrivals have asylum claims that have yet to be tested, there is widespread anger at how little sympathy they have received on reaching Europe.

"I had an idea of what Europe was – a place where human rights are important," says Eritrean national Terefa Girou. An unaccompanied eight-year-old girl kicks a football against the wall behind him. But there are no human rights here. How can Britain and France be so cruel? They bomb Libya and when people flee they make us live like this."

Some of the interviewees' names have been changed at their request

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