Italy’s clandestini: Lord McAlpine, Libyan migrants and me

One of the incidental details in the BBC/Lord McAlpine furore is the fact that McAlpine lives in Puglia, in southern Italy. Strictly speaking, then, he’s a migrant from the UK, albeit one with the funds to convert a 15th-century convent into a fairly luxurious sounding B&B complete with swimming pool and historic artefacts.

As the writer Jeremy Harding notes in his (excellent) book on migration, the world’s migrants come in all shapes and sizes. From rich business people who migrate for work or leisure, to much more desperate - but highly-motivated - types who cross borders, trek across deserts and risk perilous ocean crossings. Some are seeking political asylum as refugees. Some are looking for work and a better life.

McAlpine’s Puglia residence comes to mind as I look at a new Amnesty report on the plight of migrants in Libya. Here we’re talking about people from places like Chad, Nigeria, Eritrea and Somalia who are either trying to make it to Europe (often Italy) via Libya or are in Libya working. Some have been there for years, some just a few months. Since the fall of Gaddafi’s government it’s become much more dangerous to be a “visible” foreigner in Libya. Here’s what one person, a 22-year-old Somalian, said:

I have been in this country for about seven months, and have not seen a good day. After our 16-day journey in the desert, I ended up locked up in a house by the smugglers. They refused to continue the journey until we paid an additional 300 dollars each, after having already paid 600 dollars from Sudan to Libya. Eventually, they took us to Tripoli in a truck used to transport goods. We were stuffed in there like vegetables. I was free for a while, and did some odd work even though I have a university degree. I would stand at a roundabout and wait for daily work. Sometimes, a good Libyan would hire me and actually pay me at the end of the day. Other times, I would work all day and get nothing but insults. When I complained, the employer would threaten me and say: ‘Do you want me to call the police?’…  In July, I was arrested at a checkpoint and taken to a detention centre in Misratah. The conditions were awful there. They beat everyone including the women with rubber hoses, sticks, mops, whatever they could find lying around… I was transferred here some three weeks ago. I am not beaten, but those who try to escape are… Here I am forced to wash the toilets and have no way to refuse.

The detentions and beatings are part of a virulent anti-foreigner trend in post-Gaddafi, militia-riven Libya, something I’ve spoken about on this blog before. At its worst an entire people - Libya’s dark-skinned Tawargha - have suffered a form of ethnic cleansing. The Amnesty report quotes a high-level official in Benghazi who acknowledged that detaining migrants in Libya “has become a business”, effectively creating a pool of slave labour. It’s utterly frightening and, frankly, almost beyond the imagining of most comfortably-off people in places like the UK.

Except … well, in a six degrees of separation-type shift, it’s not that far removed either. Many of Libya’s migrants wish to reach European countries. The response? Europe trying pull up the drawbridge. Italy for one has already signed an agreement with Libya “to curtail the flow of migrants”, apparently regardless of whether there are people fleeing persecution among them. Foreign migrants in Italy - i clandestini - are set for forced return to Libya, despite the horrors they may have escaped in Misratah or Tripoli.

As a fellow EU citizen, I’m like Lord McAlpine. I can come and go to Italy as I wish, and like him I might even settle there in later life (though not in a converted convent). I’m actually off to Italy for a few days next week and I know I’ll see groups of North Africans eking out a living selling handbags and belts in the streets. Here’s the thing - I’m not sure of their precise legal status, but if they came from Libya I don’t think they should be forced back to face torture and illegal detention there.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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