When it comes to immigration control, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may be a bastard, but he’s Europe’s bastard. European ambassadors in Tripoli prior to the Libyan conflict were warned by Tripoli that Libya will suspend its migration pact with the EU if European governments encourage the insurgency currently threatening to knock Colonel Gaddafi off his throne. The pact, sealed last year, is aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigration from Libya, a major transit route for migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, across the Mediterranean.
With an estimated 14 per cent of Libya’s seven million inhabitants made up of irregular migrants, the spectre of hoards of Africans pushing at Europe’s door has been haunting EU officials for quite some time. During a visit to Italy in September last year, Gaddafi expressed this concern more bluntly than polite European government officials tend to do, warning that Europe would turn ‘black’ unless it got tougher on immigration. ‘We don’t know what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans’, he said.
Gaddafi promised to seal the crossing routes from Libya for a modest €5 billion a year. A month later, Cecilia Malmström, European commissioner for home affairs, and Štefan Füle, head of EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies, met with Libyan authorities to close a deal on migration and asylum. European financial support to Libya, in return for adopting new legislation on refugee protection and for upgrading its border surveillance systems, would amount to a total of €50million over the next three years.
In other words, besuited, clean-cut EU leaders have a lot more in common with the blinged-up Gaddafi than they would like to acknowledge. Neither has any qualms about authorising heavy-handed clampdowns on African migrants in the interest of preventing a ‘black invasion’ of Europe. And neither is very keen on the idea of African citizens exercising their freedoms – whether to protest and elect their leaders or to move freely about the world.
Already in May 2010, when the controversial Rome-Tripoli agreement came into effect, Italy began deporting to Libya migrants intercepted in international waters. The European Commission criticised the policy for potentially threatening migrants’ human rights – the Berlusconi government was deporting migrants before ascertaining whether they were political refugees and thus had the right to claim asylum in Italy. But just months later, European leaders gathered at a Brussels summit and called on the EU presidency and the European Commission ‘to intensify the dialogue with Libya on managing migration and responding to illegal immigration, including cooperation at sea, border control and readmission’ – and the European Commission heeded the call.
When it comes to non-European nationals, the EC has a very narrow view on who is a ‘deserving migrant’. So while it publicly chastised Berlusconi for potentially turning away political asylum seekers, apparently it felt the Italian-Libyan pact did not go far enough in disrupting Africans’ entry into the EU as a whole.
In fact, the EU’s fear of unregulated migration has been a trump card for Gaddafi. Assuaging this EU fear has been a way for the Libyan leader to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the West after years of ostracisation. At the same time, threats to close and open borders have become a way for Gaddafi to hold the West to ransom, as he threatens to block trade deals or relax border controls unless Europe meets his demands. So it is not surprising that Gaddafi gave European nations the ultimatum of distancing themselves from the pro-democracy protesters or facing the supposed opening of the immigration floodgates from Africa. This is a real worry for the EU, which preaches about the virtues of democracy and human rights yet which has no interest in defending freedom of movement.
As we have seen with recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, when people get a taste for freedom there’s no telling what they’ll do to achieve it. And so, as the BBC reported yesterday, immigration to the EU from Africa was reduced by 96 per cent last year thanks to Gaddafi’s cooperation. But while the island of Lampedusa, the Italian crossing point, has been fairly quiet for the past six months, up to 6,000 Tunisians arrived there in the six days following the uprising. Now, the EU’s outrage in response to Gaddafi’s threat has only shown up its fear of people from Over There clamouring for the same kind of freedoms we enjoy over here. As European leaders cry crocodile tears over the Libyans being killed by Gaddafi’s forces, let’s not forget that many of these Libyans have been locked in their country precisely by the EU policy of paying Gaddafi millions of pounds in return for keeping ‘ignorant Africans’ out of Europe.