In the face of continuing violence in Libya, it is striking to see how the attention of some European governments is already shifting from the unprecedented suffering of people in Libya to selfish panic about immigration issues. This panic has particularly revolved around predictions that massive numbers of migrants and asylum seekers will start moving from Libya to Italy in the wake of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
The Italian government even warned of a ‘biblical exodus’ to Europe. The media have also started to use such apocalyptic images. However, there are many reasons to believe that such predictions are wrong as they vastly exaggerate the true, much more limited scale of migration. They are also dangerous because unrealistic fears of mass immigration may fuel racism and effectively undermine refugee protection.
Over the past decade or so, European politicians have become increasingly obsessed by immigration questions in an attempt to respond to mounting racism and popular anti-immigration feelings. They have also actively played into and further reinforced such fears by employing rhetoric which portrays immigration as an external threat to security, the sovereignty of the state and social cohesion and cultural integrity.
Politicians desire to give an impression of controlling immigration by using tough and belligerent language such as the need to ‘fight’ and ‘combat’ illegal migration. Yet this obscures the fact that European governments have little genuine economic interest in stopping migration. The anti-immigration rhetoric about immigration fears also conceals the fact that African migration to Europe is fuelled by a structural demand for cheap migrant labour and that democratic states have limited means to effectively stop migration as long as this demand persists.
So, the main issue for politicians is to give the appearance to their constituencies that they are fully in control of borders and are successfully fulfilling their ‘security imperative’. This manipulation of the migration issues reveals a well-tried pattern of politicians who willingly reinforce or invent external threats to create a common cause. As already argued by Nando Sigona for the case of the recent arrivals of Tunisians on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the creation of ‘emergency discourses’ on migration can be a highly effective means for politicians to divert attention away from domestic political problems, as in the case of Berlusconi’s scandals.
Not only politicians, but also the media play an important role in creating apocalyptic images about African-European migration. Media outlets are often eager to use sensational terms to maintain momentum and galvanize people’s emotions. To some, this may perhaps sound quite extreme. Yet, at the risk of generalization, this is what is clearly happening in the mainstream coverage of Libya. The lack of verifiable information is not helping, either. Journalists and commentators are relying on scattered and often unreliable information.
So, in the midst of this ‘controlled’ information maelstrom, wild and totally unfounded speculations by politicians about hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers about to migrate to Europe can easily become self-referring and presented as ‘facts’. This is not only inaccurate, but is also harmful, as speculations about ‘massive immigration’ serve to portray immigration and immigrants as a threat.
While it has been amply documented that there are between 1.5 and 2 million regular and irregular migrants in Libya, and while we may expect certain increases in emigration from Libya as a response to instability and violence, it seems rather absurd to assume that the large majority of immigrants currently living in Libya would collectively migrate to Europe.
Politicians, journalists and researchers should therefore refrain from manipulating people’s fears by projecting images of millions of people arriving on European shores, because there is simply no evidence, and because it is dangerous. To start with, it ignores what is happening on the ground and the true scale of migrant and refugee flows. Since the onset of the Libyan revolt, significant numbers of migrant workers are fleeing out of Libya. It has been estimated that over the last few days over 5,000 people have arrived at the Tunisian border and some 15,000 at the Egyptian border. Other migrants have moved south, towards Niger. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the total number of arrivals in Egypt, Tunisia and Niger so far would be about 40,000 to 50,000. These are significant numbers, but they also do not have the proportions of a ‘biblical exodus’, and they certainly question the prevailing, and false, wisdom according to which most people in Libya would move to Europe.
So far, the unanticipated political turmoil across North Africa has had significant but certainly not alarmist impact on migration within the region and across the Mediterranean. A few weeks ago, boats carrying a few thousand Tunisians arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the fall of the Ben Ali regime. The Italian government was swift to declare this a national emergency issue, whereas the total numbers were actually tiny in comparison to overall regular and irregular immigration to Italy. This shows how politicians often blow the scale of migration out of proportion, and that they would do so on purpose.
More in general, ideas of a looming ‘invasion’ to Europe of a large number of African migrants have long proven to be entirely fictitious. It is of course impossible to predict the exact impact of the current – let alone future – turmoil on regional migration flows. However, based on experiences with previous crises we can get some sense of the possible scale and direction of migration. While refugee flows can be rather big, most refugees tend to migrate within regions. Even in the worst case scenario of a full-scale humanitarian crisis and protracted conflict, we cannot just assume that all migrants currently in Libya would simply turn up in Europe, because most migrants will prefer to go their home countries and many of those who would wish to go to Europe will not have the resources to do so.
The unwarranted portrayal of future African–European migration as an emergency issue is particularly dangerous because it diverts the attention away from more important and urgent issues. This particularly applies to the precarious position of people – Libyans and migrants – inside Libya. First, there is evidence that African migrants and asylum seekers in Libya have been the target of racist violence because some citizens of sub-Saharan African countries they have been suspected of being mercenaries. In fact videos suggest that alleged mercenaries have been captured and lynched by Libyan protestors. Somalis in Tripoli, for example, have been hunted and are frightened to go out. According to the Italian representative for the UNHCR, Libya is witnessing a ‘hunt for the African foreigner’. Second, most refugee movements are concentrated within the North African and Sahelian region. Instead of inventing a false immigration threat to European security and losing time and energy in European conflicts about ‘burden sharing’, the priority should be protecting the lives of migrants and refugees in Libya and North Africa as well as Libyans themselves under threat by the regime.
Politicians and the media should therefore refrain from fomenting alarmist feelings about a ‘biblical exodus’ based on latent racist fears rather than a real understanding of what is going on on the ground. At the same time, the international community should take a more forceful and proactive stance towards the state terror and violence occurring in Libya. As Lisa Anderson recently argued, this crisis may be a good test of the United Nations and the international community to discharge its ‘responsibility to protect’ citizens from predatory governments. Such a truly humanitarian approach requires that we eschew uninformed, Eurocentric and highly deceptive portrayals of African people, and migrants in general, as the frightening ‘other’ who are about to invade Europe.