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Drowning Not Waving: The Mediterranean Migrant Crisis and Libya's Implosion

12/05/2015 22:58 BST | Updated 12/05/2016 10:59 BST

Despite the outcry in recent weeks over the repeated drownings in the Mediterranean, surprisingly little has been said about the country most of the migrants and refugees are coming from: Libya. Which is odd, because the increasingly disastrous state of Libya is a key component to this tragedy.

This huge country in the Maghreb, seven times the size of Britain and with southern borders to Niger, Chad and Sudan, has been steadily imploding since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi viciously dictatorial government in 2011. What was previously a destination country for migrants from poor African countries has become a hotbed of xenophobia and violence. And increasingly it's a place that foreigners - and some Libyans - want to leave, not get to, find a job and hope to stay in.

The rot set in a long time ago. During the armed opposition to Gaddafi, so-called revolutionaries (the thuuwar) quickly showed themselves to be ruthless in their treatment of opponents. Detaining captured pro-Gaddafi people in makeshift prisons and torturing them become common. Even more ominously, during the "cleansing" of the largely pro-Gaddafi town of Tawarga, vengeful militia from the city of Misrata left graffiti celebrating themselves as "the brigade for purging slaves [and] black skin", as they forced out the town's entire 10,000-strong population and revived Arab racism toward darker-skinned Africans (Tawargas are the descendants of sub-Saharan slaves in Libya).

That was nearly four years ago. Since then the full-on disintegration of the country into tribal and regional conflict has appeared unstoppable, with militias running amok. A new Amnesty report shows how a number of things have happened within this violent fragmentation. People smugglers/traffickers who had long taken people (mostly from sub-Saharan Africa) through Libya have been able to do so with greater ease and ruthlessness, exploiting Libya's increasing lawlessness. In turn, some Libyans, beset by anarchy all around, have done what people have done down the ages: begun to blame the foreigners - people from Gambia or Nigeria who work as housekeepers or as car washers or construction site labourers. Foreigners are also being blamed specifically for the rise of the armed gangs doing the people smuggling. And some are also being targeted by religious extremists aligned to Islamic State (Christians are especially at risk). Whichever way you look at it, Libya is fast becoming a terrifying place for foreigners. One Gambian man describes the atmosphere:

"You could be walking at night and criminal gangs would assault you and hold their guns to your head ... They would shout 'you black, come here', and take all your money from you ... People can ask you to work free for them ... If you complain to the police, they will lock you up."

Meanwhile, on top of this "unsettled settled" community of foreigners in Libya, there are the in-transit new arrivals, who are often at the complete mercy of their traffickers. Here's what a 17-year-old from Ivory Coast went through:

"I arrived in Libya [and went] directly to Sabha. I didn't even have a chance to see the city before I found myself in prison. The smugglers basically handed us over to another group; these men were armed. The smugglers that took us from Agadez in Niger were Libyan Tebu, but those that held us captive were not. They were light-skinned. We arrived in Sabha in a 4x4, but after the smugglers handed us over to the other group, we were transferred to the secret prison in a minivan. The driver told us to hide underneath the seats. I was kept there for four months in a three-storey house. There must have been around 40 persons held there. We were kept on the second floor of the house. The windows were sealed off with bricks and in other places covered with fabric so that no one would see us. They gave us food only once a day, and we were forced to drink water from the tap, which was salty. I ate only enough to survive. They tortured us to force us to call our relatives to extort money from them."

Nightmarish as this sounds, there are even more terrible stories. Those who make it to Libya have often travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles. A 25-year-old Somalian called Mohamed has described his epic journey like this:

"I travelled from Somalia to Libya, through Ethiopia and Sudan. I entered Libya through the Sahara. It was very dangerous, many died. In the desert, Libyan men were forcing, torturing us, beating us with swords, guns, stones, Kalashnikovs. They would beat us every day. They broke my finger, a friend had [a] broken arm. We couldn't escape. My friend Mohamed tried to escape and was shot dead. Another man was hit on the head with a stone and died. You didn't eat or drink."

The Amnesty report is full of stories like this, depressing and terrifying. The sheer ruthlessness of the people traffickers is reminiscent of the brutal gangs now operating in the lawless Sinai region of Egypt, another major African refugee and migrant route. That said, the smugglers/traffickers are not uniformly cruel or exploitative and their existence is clearly part of a symbiotic relationship with people desperate to reach safety or a better life. The EU's plan to destroy traffickers' boats is useless (indeed dangerously worse than useless) if the EU isn't going to supply other routes out of Libya for those trying to escape (whether the quotas currently being touted will provide that, remains to be seen). (See Patrick Kingsley on the serious practical difficulties of trying to destroy the boats). In any case, the people will still keep coming, probably turning to even more dangerous vessels and routes.

It takes 1,000 deaths in a week to wake Europe up, but this has been going on for a long time. Fifteen years ago Jeremy Harding's incredibly powerful book The Uninvited spelt out the very clear fact that thousands of people from poor parts of the world (some also suffering political persecution) would continue to try for a better, safer life in the rich world, not least Europe. Only the most desperate and resourceful take the enormous risks, the majority staying behind despite grinding poverty or political oppression. And what's the West's answer? Stop the search-and-rescue missions (then partially reinstate them), blast trafficker boats out the water, pull up the drawbridge. Fortress Europe is handy with the gunboats, but less keen on preventing the wretched of the earth from drowning in the Mediterranean or on providing refuge for them.

And meanwhile, which nations enthusiastically sent their heavily-armed Tornado and Mirage fighter aircraft over the Mediterranean and into Libya to tackle Colonel Gaddafi back in 2011? That's right, the UK, France and their European allies ...