Let’s remind ourselves that just a week ago the media were abuzz with predictions of a “biblical exodus” towards Europe. Italian and other European politicians stated that Europe should brace itself for the mass arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees on European shores.
As usual, developments on the ground have proven the doomsayers wrong. The large majority of migrants fleeing the violence in Libya are returning to Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, the Philippines, China, Bangladesh and various European and African countries.
There have been some boats carrying some 6,000 migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but what few realise is that this is part of the ‘normal’ springtime boat migration of prospective migrant workers from the Tunisian coast. This should not be confused with the much more large-scale overland cross-border movement of migrants out of Libya who wish to return home.
The whole idea of an “immigrant invasion” was flawed from the start. It was based on the misunderstanding that most migrants in Libya are in transit to Europe, while it was already widely known that most migrants had come to Libya to work, and now want to return home.
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Of the approximately 2 to 2.5 million migrants allegedly living in Libya (reliable figures are lacking), only 200,000 or so have left. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, mainly African migrants remain trapped in Libya.
Although there is still a lack of verifiable information, an increasing number of reports suggest that African migrants inside Libya have fallen victim to violence, robbery, imprisonment and, allegedly, murder. Although migrants of many origins have fallen victim to violence and abuse, sub-Saharan migrants run much higher risks.
First of all, sub-Saharan Africans are among the poorest migrants in Libya. The long journey back home involves significant costs and risks of crossing the Sahara desert. What makes them particularly vulnerable is that they run the risk of violent attacks by angry mobs because they are erroneously perceived as “African mercenaries” hired by Gaddafi. There is also evidence of violence and theft by Gaddafi loyalists and border guards.
So, sub-Saharan migrants have now become a potential target of violence from either side of the conflict. This is part of an established pattern of racist violence and discrimination against sub-Saharan migrants in Libya since they started arriving in increasingly large numbers since the 1990s. However, in the current situation of total lawlessness and violent conflict, these risks are higher than ever.
de Haas' 2007 International Migration Institute study "The myth of invasion: Irregular migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union" (PDF format) is well worth study. He makes the point that so far West Africa is actually not a major source of migrants for western Europe, partly because of the poverty that isolates most of the region from the world economy--countries like Senegal with their long migrant-sending traditions, and partly because traditions of migration within West Africa have been supplemented by migration to a much wealthier Libya unattractive for Arab migrants relative to the Persian Gulf and run by a nominal pan-Africanist. The importance of immigration from sub-Saharan West Africa to North Africa, particularly but not only Saharan areas, is something de Haas brings out nicely. (And boat people, it seems, form only a small proportion of sub-Saharan Africans entering western Europe illegally; most overstay their passports.)