SPEAKING FREELY Apathy in the face of cruelty
By Ahmed E Souaiaia
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Since the start of the Libyan uprising, mainstream news outlets have reported
that African and even Eastern European mercenaries were fighting with Muammar
Gaddafi's forces. The Libyan rebels, eager to minimize any support for Gaddafi
among the Libyan population, have fed Western media horror stories of mass
murder carried out by black Africans.
Consequently, many immigrant workers were caught between the ire of a regime
that did not care much for them and a new wave of prejudice and discrimination
fueled by the media and rebel propaganda. The fact that some foreigners fought
for the regime
does not tell the full story. Most African immigrants were unwilling
participants in a war that no one had anticipated.
In order to understand the presence of so many Africans and non-Africans in
Libya, one must understand the role played by the former dictator.
Using Libya's large oil revenues as if they constituted his personal fortune,
Gaddafi engaged in meddling in the affairs of his neighbors, supporting
nationalist movements, and conspiring to overthrow regimes he did not like.
He also used immigrant workers to blackmail his neighbors. In the 1980s and
1990s Gaddafi gave hundreds of thousands of Tunisian workers hours, not days,
to leave the country empty-handed. The sudden "dumping" of workers without
their earnings was meant to create economic and social crisis for neighboring
It was his way of punishing the Tunisian authoritarians Bourguiba and Ben Ali.
He used the same tactic with the Egyptians. But Gaddafi's most bizarre
achievement was coaxing some European leaders to use him as a gatekeeper, in
charge of preventing Africans from reaching the shores of Europe.
Speaking at a ceremony in Rome on August 31, 2010 and standing next to (then)
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Gaddafi declared:
Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who
want to come in. We don't know what will happen, what will be the reaction of
the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and
ignorant black Africans. We don't know if Europe will remain an advanced and
united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian
European leaders did not object to these words,
despite their abhorrently racist nature. In fact, even after the Libyan people
began their revolution in early 2011, Berlusconi claimed that his personal
friendship with Gaddafi prevented him from taking an active role in the North
Atlantic Treaty's mission in Libya.
What was never asked is the obvious question: why would Africans demeaned,
insulted, and belittled by the dictator risk their lives for him? Why would
“ignorant Black Africans” pay with their blood and sweat for a dictator who
called them so?
According to reports, Gaddafi asked the European Union (EU) to pay him about
US$6.3 billion a year to stop illegal African immigration. It is evident that
since the Italy-Libya friendship agreement, Gaddafi became very effective in
stopping the flow of African immigrants to Europe through Italy.
According to European Commission figures, the number of people caught trying to
enter Italy illegally fell from 32,052 in 2008 to 7,300 in 2009. These figures
do not include the number of young men who perished at sea trying to find
different escape routes. They drowned when their makeshift rafts fell apart.
Those who reached the EU shores were immediately returned to the brutal regimes
of north Africa. On numerous occasions, Italy intercepted immigrants and handed
them over to Libyan authorities without screening and without the due process
required by human rights treaties.
Unemployed Africans, like unemployed Latin Americans, go north to make a living
and to feed their families, not to fight ideological wars. Immigrants cannot
choose their line of work. In the case of Libya, Gaddafi used European money to
hire some of these immigrants, and to deport others. Given his distrust of his
own people, he hired many of these immigrants in the security sector before the
Like in the United States, the rights of immigrant workers are not part of the
national conversation until there are national economic implications. In the
US, a national need for seasonal migrant workers meant that the government
eased border controls to allow up to 12 million people to cross. When the
unemployment rate went up and the economy slowed down, all political parties
developed slogans to deal with immigration issues. In Libya, Gaddafi used
immigrant workers as bargaining chip to blackmail other states.
In Europe, former colonial powers wanted to limit migration from Africa. They
relied on the southern rim countries to keep sub-Saharan Africans from reaching
Africa's northern shores. Then, in 2008, the French president and several other
European leaders pushed for the creation of the Union for the Mediterranean,
consisting of over 40 nations with the actual (but unstated) aims of offering
Turkey an alternative to the EU and creating a buffer zone in North Africa.
Naturally, these efforts failed given the dissonance between its stated goals
and intended aims.
The former Libyan dictator's words and European attitudes towards the people
from the south is more than economic and social policies. They stem from latent
racism and cruel indifference to the plight of millions of people who have been
disadvantaged by unfair economic trade, political corruption, and natural
disasters. While the latter cannot be blamed on anyone, the former two causes
of unemployment and poverty in the south can easily be traced to Western
Western leaders' support of corrupt dictators and unfair trade practices
contributed to the harsh conditions these people want to escape. Both sides -
African and European - would be better served by an honest commitment to
respecting human dignity irrespective of national origin and citizenship
status. The powerful North ought to adopt an international relations system
founded on shared humanity, not on artificial borders.
Professor Ahmed E Souaiaia teaches at the University of Iowa with joint
appointments in International Studies, Islamic Studies, and College of Law. He
is the author of the book Contesting Justice.
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