As the fighting in Libya intensifies the most vulnerable are the sub-saharan migrant workers, from countries such as Nigeria and Chad.
These migrant workers are caught between a rock and hard place; between the forces of loyal to Ghaddafi and the opposition. Now – even if they wanted to leave to Tunisia it seems like the pro-Ghaddafi forces have an interest in keeping them in Libya. Reports in New York Times claims that migrant workers are robbed of their possessions – money and any documents that they might have – and stopped from exiting Libya to Tunisia. And by the opposition they are treated as suspected mercenaries employed by Ghaddafi. This might mean physical abuse and, in some cases, death. So they way to exit Libya to Egypt might also be cut off.
As Ghaddafi stated in an interview to a french newspaper – without him Europe will face a refugee crisis. It is hard not to view the continued presence of migrant workers in Libya as strategic for Ghaddafi. Something to hold on to, in Libya. Something to hold over the heads of Italy, Malta and France. A threat of an exodus of biblical proportions – to paraphrase the overblown and alarmist statement by Italian minister of interior Roberto Maroni (to the 5000 Tunisians who arrived at Lampedusa…), of refugees if Italy and Malta get involved in a no-fly zone or other operations to strengthen the opposition?
The question is if this threat has and will have an effect? At least the Maltese government seems particularly averse to take any side in the conflict, as stated by foreign minister Borg. Malta has also objected to a blanked wide sanctions (as, granted, has other countries – Italy?), as reported in Times of Malta. And the Italian government seems to view refugees as a existential threat. This and the absurd statement from minister Maroni can go a long way to explain the reason for the now defunct Italian – Libyan friendship agreement. An agreement which was part of the lowering the number of asylum seekers form 36 000 (2008) t0 4400 (2010) as Libya curtailed the ways which refugees could travel to Italy to apply for asylum.