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

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.