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

Thousands of desperate migrant workers have gathered near Calais

By Jerome Taylor
The Independent/UK
May 18, 2011


Asylum seekers fleeing Libya at 'Africa House', a refugee camp 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.

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news archive for more stories 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

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

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

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

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.”

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

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

“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

A problem to divide Europe

The presence of migrants in Calais has long been a sore point
between Britain and France.

The French say they are left to deal with the illegal
migrants who want to settle in the UK. Britain has also
refused to take a single refugee from either Libya or

Meanwhile Italy, forced to deal with thousands of North
African migrants landing on Lampedusa, is issuing temporary
papers that allow them to travel freely throughout Europe –
especially to France, the preferred destination for the
majority of Tunisians.

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