Ian Birrell: These poor unfortunates are pawns in a game of power politics

Share
Related Topics

Michael was sitting in the shade of a building site with about 20 fellow Nigerians, watching life go by in a bustling town on the edge of the Sahara. He was wearing a thick jersey despite the sweltering desert heat, and told me how he had spent the past 10 months travelling from his home in Lagos to this dusty crossroads. His group included doctors and teachers, and despite being broke and hungry, they were determined to get to Italy in search of a better life. "At home there is just unemployment and trouble. It is worth the risk of dying to get to Europe," he said.

I was on my way to Germa, 30 kilometres (19 miles) away, once the centre of an empire so strong that it saw off the Romans. Today, an army of people from sub-Saharan Africa is invading Europe and as you travel through Libya you can see them everywhere.

I met Malians in one town, Senegalese in another. You see them lined up on "the hustling grounds", on street corners and in car parks, desperate to work for a few dinars to sustain them on their terrible journeys. Some have abandoned their dreams of reaching Europe, and taken menial jobs in Libya. Others hang around Mediterranean fishing ports, where it is an open secret that fishermen are making fortunes ferrying these desperate people across the water. You can see their smart homes, built out of human misery. And their blue boats, lined up on the beaches.

There are estimated to be 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans in Libya, where the official population is little over five million. They have come from all over the continent, and are deeply resented by many Libyans, who hold them in little-disguised racist contempt. There have been sporadic outbursts of violence against them over the years, and they are subjected to occasional mass arrest and forced repatriation.

There is a good reason so many end up in Libya. They are pawns in a game of power politics being played out by the maverick Libyan leader. After Muammar Gaddafi was rebuffed in his attempts to become leader of the Arab world by more pragmatic neighbours, he turned his attention to Africa. He is currently chairman of the African Union, pushing a vision of African unity in his quixotic quest to be a global player.

To underline this policy he has opened up Libya's borders, and a man who helped fuel some of the continent's most brutal wars now offers a fantasy Mecca of African brotherhood. Tripoli is filled with propaganda posters showing the Colonel bathed in golden rays while black men and women stretch out their arms as if in supplication to their saviour.

The reality is rather different. All too often, the true pictures are of bloated bodies bobbing in the waves, the human flotsam and jetsam washed up on a tide of globalisation. And of poor, brave and desperate unfortunates like Michael, whose search for a decent life ends in tragedy.

i.birrell@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Infrastructure Analyst

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Infrastructure Ana...

Teacher of Learners with Special Needs - Nottingham

£130 - £161 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Teacher required to work w...

Science Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Science Teachers needed for s...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Ed Miliband on low pay; Alan Johnson on Betjeman; Tom Freeman on editing

John Rentoul
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments