Page last updated at 23:43 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 00:43 UK

Migrants risk all from Libyan port

By Michael Buchanan
BBC News, Zuwarah, Libya

Fishing boats in Zuwarah
Migrants in Zuwarah pay smugglers to take them to Europe

The Libyan fishing port of Zuwarah is alive with fishermen selling the morning's catch - a kilo of sardines for five dinars (about $4, or a little over 2) - or mending their nets, preparing for the next trip.

The town has a reputation as one of the main departure points for migrants heading to Europe, but the fishermen claimed to have seen nothing - the migrants cross at night, they said, when they are at sea.

In the centre of Zuwarah, about a mile from the quayside, were dozens of people hoping to get a passage to Europe.

Some Nigerians were willing to speak to me.

All professed a desire to get away from Libya, and their preferred destinations were a who's who of Europe - Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain, the UK and Italy.

Map of Libya, Tunisia and Italy

To get on a boat they need to pay the smugglers about 1,000 euros ($1,460), they said, and the only reason they have not tried so far is because they cannot raise the money.

A mixture of bravado and desperation means they did not fear the journey.

But unlike Musa Korosa, they had not actually experienced the Mediterranean.

The 21-year-old tried to reach Europe earlier this year, spending eight days at sea.

The boat developed engine trouble and the 351 people on board were left at the mercy of the raging waves.

"More than 135 people, babies, pregnant women from Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia all died," he said.

"There was no food, no drink - all I could drink was salt water to protect my life."

Bodies on beaches

The Italian authorities say more than 15,000 immigrants have landed on the southern island of Lampedusa so this year, more than double the figure for the whole of 2007.

What no-one can say is how many may have died en-route, but there are gruesome stories of Libyans discovering bodies as they walk the country's beaches.

Labourers in Zuwarah
Most migrants in Libya live in the shadows

While some may die trying to reach Europe, others die trying to reach Libya.

A 23-year-old Nigerian, who gave his name only as Zachariah, says he saw many dead bodies as he was crossing the Sahara desert.

"I had three friends, two of them are dead - I saw them with my own eyes," he said.

"I saw the bodies of so many people who died. Some people were just left there. What can you do? There is nothing you can do."

Estimates for the number of illegal immigrants in Libya range from 750,000 to two million - in a country with an official population of some six million.

They do not receive any benefits, and most live a hand-to-mouth existence, sitting by roadsides or in underpasses hoping for a day's work.


Many do not speak Arabic so they advertise their trades through tools - a painter will seat with a brush, a labourer with a hammer.

Some have understandably decided that they would be better off returning home, and hundreds have taken advantage of a scheme run by the International Organisation for Migration.

In return for repatriation, the IOM will help the migrant set up a business in their local communities and the programme has been so successful that it has already spent its entire budget.

I don't want to do prostitution. That's not in my blood
Female migrant

On a recent visit to the IOM's main centre in Tripoli, the slight woman wanting to return to Nigeria was not your average migrant.

The fast-talking 17-year-old had been trafficked to Libya, her minder intent on selling her into prostitution in Italy.

She had been deceived into leaving Nigeria, she said, by the promise of a job and good schooling in Spain.

A man called Fred took her to Libya and when it became clear that he could not get her to Europe, he told her he was going to sell her to a prostitution ring in Thailand.

Fortunately she managed to escape Fred's clutches.

"I don't want to go into prostitution," she said. "I only want to go to school. Or I work.

"I don't want to do prostitution. That's not in my blood. God did not create me for that and I'm not going to do it."

Some Italian officials blame the Libyan government for not doing enough to stop the migrants leaving their shores.

But according to Laurence Hart, the IOM's Chief of Mission in Libya, Tripoli cannot solve the problem alone.

"The Libyans are not doing enough to protect the European coast," he said.

"But why should the Libyan protect the European coast? It has to be a shared effort.

"It needs help with border management. It has 4,000km of land, desert border and 1,700km of sea, maritime borders."

Such cooperation may well reduce the flow of people trying to leave Libya for Europe.

But with the comparative riches of Europe so seemingly close at hand, desperate migrants will undoubtedly continue to put their lives at risk for what they believe to be their one chance of a brighter, better future.

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