Africa on the move: why Italy fears migrant flood
Robert Fox: The migrant workers trying to leave Libya are part of a much bigger picture
The humanitarian crisis now blowing up on the borders of Libya could be just the beginning. In Italy they now fear a surge of humanity which could see one and a half million of Africa's new nomads trying to seek refuge on the European shores of the Mediterranean.
The numbers are impossible to check – though some agencies are suggesting that up to half a million migrants could already be on the move in Libya.
What we are seeing today at the main crossings from Libya into Egypt and Tunisia is only a small symptom of a much wider phenomenon. Currently the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that some 80,000 Egyptian migrant workers have already crossed into Egypt, with 40,000 more waiting to leave Libya.
But apart from the Egyptians, what of the Bangladeshis, the Iranians, the Gulf Arabs, and the sub-Saharan Africans? And where do they go?
The assumption behind David Cameron's well intentioned dispatch of three charter planes to Djerba was that they would be tasked primarily to ferry Egyptians home. But how many of the foreigners now fleeing Libya really have a home to return to? Most were driven to go to Libya in the first place by sheer desperation, believing there was nothing for them back home.
Curiously, in almost none of the international television coverage of the refugees at the border crossings has anyone been asked where they are going, and whether they really have anywhere safe and secure they could call ‘home'.
Last Thursday alone, 500 refugees arrived in four small boats on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. In the past six weeks nearly 7,000 have arrived from Tunisia, more than doubling the resident population.
Italy's interior minister Roberto Maroni, from the anti-immigration Northern League, has claimed that the number of illegal migrants into Italy from North Africa could top one million this year alone. He has cited the EU border agency, which has put the estimate at 1.5 million. "I ask Europe for all the necessary measures to deal with a catastrophic humanitarian emergency. We cannot be left alone."
In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi signed a friendship agreement with Muammar Gaddafi, handing over $5 billion as reparations for Italy's colonial rule in Libya in the early part of the last century.
One of the results of this deal was that Gaddafi rounded up asylum seekers from across Africa trying to reach Italy via Libya, and put many of them in camps. According to some Italian officials, Libya has intercepted and detained more than 2.5 million asylum seekers in the past five years.
If Libya becomes another failed or semi-failed state on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, rather as Albania has on the northern shore, it will soon be the transit point for another big wave of migration into Europe.
Expanding populations, and the privations produced by climate change, principally in desertification and the changes if rainfall and water supply, mean the pressure will build – at least for the next two decades or so, after which populations look like levelling out.
Egypt's population in 1961 was under 30 million; today it is about 84 million and rising at about 800,000 a year. Many have to be supported by the increasingly fragile eco-system of the Nile.
Morocco is bracing itself for a huge influx of up to 30 million migrants from West Africa over the next 25 years, according to one of the King's ministers who briefed me two years ago. This would more than double the present population – and it is bound to impact on Europe, just seven miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar.
The huge movement of people on the edges and through our Mediterranean and European neighbourhood is paid only scant lip service in the strategic blueprints of the Cameron government, the National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review of last October. Yet it should now be a strategic priority.
Meanwhile, as world television focuses on the borders of Libya, the IOM has put out an urgent appeal for what they call "the forgotten humanitarian crisis" – the 125,000 refugees fleeing the last bout of civil strife and murder in the Cote d'Ivoire. ·
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