From Libya to Italy in search of freedom

Refugee boat deaths

Desperate people, hazardous escapes

By Graham Peebles

Besieged by civil war, poverty and violent repression, huge numbers of people are risking their lives and making the hazardous journey from Tripoli or Benghazi across the Mediterranean to Italy.

Crammed into unsafe, poorly maintained vessels, thousands of vulnerable men, women and children are leaving their homes in search of peace, freedom and opportunity. They come from countries in turmoil: Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya, among others. They have lost hope of life becoming peaceful and just in their homeland and see no alternative but to pack a bag with their past and set off into the unknown. They are scared to leave and terrified to stay.

There is no functioning state in Libya. Armed militias patrol the streets and “Islamic State” or Da‘ish is an increasing presence in the country. Around half a million people wait in Tripoli for a boat to Europe. Nationless and “illegal”, they are vulnerable to a range of dangers in various uniforms.

Sekou Balde from Senegal told the Telegraph “he was stabbed six times by a gang of four Libyan gunmen who demanded money after they raided the house near Tripoli. “My brother was shot dead in front of me – boom, boom – as well as two of my friends,” he said.

Thousands of people arriving in the country are held in “migrant detention centres”, run by the Department for Combating Illegal Migration. Between 1,000 and 6,000 inmates are kept in each of the 19 centres, where violent abuse and mistreatment is commonplace. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that in these prison-like places guards “have tortured and otherwise abused migrants and asylum seekers, including with severe whippings, beatings and electric shocks”. Bribes of anything up to USD 1,000 for release are commonplace.

Nightmare journeys

The journey to a new peaceful life is protracted and unmapped, with no guarantee of arriving safely on Europe’s shores, let alone being welcomed. Over the weekend of the 14 February 2,600 people were rescued in the Mediterranean, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, near where 360 had died last October. The crossing is said to be the most dangerous in the world: over 3,200 died making the journey last year.

Criminal gangs are the agents for the journey: they provide no travel itinerary or travel insurance, there are no swanky departure lounges, café’s or friendly cabin crew. Just traffickers who charge a fortune and will beat and abuse anyone who challenges them.

The costs are astronomical, averaging between USD 5,000 and USD10,000, and the routes are many and varied. The migrants walk – these frightened men, women and children often walks for miles, barefoot or in plastic sandals, and they  sleep on the streets or in the bush.

After months of grinding hardship following on from years of struggle, homelessness, imprisonment, repression and fear, they board a boat manned by thugs, a worn-out vessel for the drained and degraded. No space to breathe or rest, no food even no water. The children cry, are cold and scared. The sea rough and unforgiving. The dark suffocating.

The risks, however great, are no deterrent to those seeking to escape conflict, suppression and hardship. In Syria (24,000  people journeyed to Italy last year) where civil war still rages, and with Libya on the verge of imploding, the risks are greater than anything the Mediterranean has to offer. So too in Eritrea – 29,000 left for Europe via Libya in 2014 – where a lifetime of forced military service for both men and women, poverty, arbitrary detention, torture and repression have driven over 200,000 to flee the country in the past decade. That is more than 3 per cent of the population. And then there’s Somalia, still in the grip of a civil war that kills civilians, where soldiers rape and abuse women, and almost half the population lives under the shadow of suffocating poverty. And Egypt – another military dictatorship – suffering the most serious human rights crisis in its history, according to HRW.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many are trying to find sanctity and refuge in Europe. You would have to be crazy to stay!

Prejudice and indifference

The men, women and children, making what are by any standard nightmare journeys, are not responsible for the poisonous environment that they have been forced to live in. They are innocent people who are simply trying to find a peaceful place where they can live, prosper and bring up their families. In so doing they are being exploited and mistreated by criminal traffickers, police and bandits alike.

Leaving the familiarity of home, these desperate people are generically called “migrants”. A charged term filled with all manner of hate and prejudice, it denies the individual and tarnishes everyone with the brush of appropriation, the sour stench of suspicion. It is a lazy label of intolerance, which fosters abuse and mistreatment. The migrant is “the other”, the one who wants to take something from us, who will exploit our social systems, pollute or dilute our culture, soil our communities and threaten the safety and sanctity of Western democracy. These strangers at our door have become a series of inconvenient statistics for Western politicians to hurl at one another, an excuse for right-wing extremism.

In a globalised world of competition and division “we have, fallen into a globalisation of indifference”, Pope Francis cried out on the shores of the Mediterranean. “Forgive us our indifference towards so many brothers and sisters,”  he said.

Compassion, tolerance and understanding, not intolerance, paranoia and hate, need to flow unreservedly towards the needy and fragile, the human beings fleeing violent conflict or brutal repressive regimes and who face darkness and terror as they journey from home to Europe.

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