Before the revolution Tunisian sea patrols intercepted and turned back boats heading for Europe. So did Libyan patrols, after a deal signed by Gaddafi and Berlusconi in 2009.
"Berlusconi promised to provide US$200 million a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya. Italy provided three patrol boats to Libya on May 14, and has promised three more. Italy has also said that it will help construct a radar system to monitor Libya's desert borders, using the Italian security company, Finmeccanica.
Cosimo D'Arrigo, the commander of Italy's Finance Guard, said that the patrol boats would be "used in joint patrols in Libyan territorial water and international waters in conjunction with Italian naval operations," according to the ANSA news agency. So far, the joint patrols have succeeded in curtailing the flow of boat migrants to Italy."
Berlusconi, btw, has not AFAIK joined in the anti-Gaddafi chorus.
Gaddafi interpreted the deal broadly, and wasn't too fussy about the implementation:
"For Kwame Apeah, life as a migrant worker in Libya was good until about two years ago. 'For a while after I arrived, things were great. I had steady work, something I rarely had in Ghana, and I'd made Libyan friends,' he said. 'But then the police started cracking down on black workers in Tripoli. They didn't want to see us, and accused us of trying to reach Italy. Some friends were rounded up and thrown in jail. Another friend was shot in the arm,' he added."
North Africa has a large immigrant worker population. Most are sub-Saharan Africans who moved North hoping to find work either in North Africa or Europe, but there are also a large number of Bangladeshis.
The camp has a majority of single men, mostly labourers from from Bangladesh, Sudan, Somalia and Egypt. Aid agencies and Tunisian officials at the camp estimate the numbers to be 18,000, with 14,000 of them Bangladeshis. From the corner of the eye, you notice a Tunisian National Guard security official official stepping out of the shadows and tailing you. Time for a few questions, but he shoots first. ‘’What you doing here, nationality?’’ in halting English. Introductions done, he relaxes, lights a cigarette and gives you the inside story.
‘’There has been some fighting here between two groups,’’ he begins. You ask his name, he brushes aside the question. ‘’The Africans and Bangladeshis don’t get along, so we had to split them and keep them apart. The longer they stay here, the worse the situation will get.’’
The Africans and Bangladeshis don't get on, and neither do the sub-Saharan Africans and Libyans. Gaddafi's use of black mercenaries against his own people certainly hasn't helped, but the attitudes pre-date the uprising.
“There is a hierarchy of races.”
Blacks are widely referred to as “Abd,” or slaves*. Bangladeshis are viewed as little better, and even Arab Egyptians and Tunisians are considered to have limited rights. Migrant workers tell of the “gangsters” who hold foreigners at knifepoint in the Libyan streets, stealing their money and telephones with impunity. At night, said Francis Appiah, 35, a Ghanaian mason who fled the western Libyan city of Zuwarah, “you weren’t able to go out to buy anything,” for fear of attacks. He added that thieves had once stolen a DVD player, a television and speakers from his home. “I didn’t go to the police, because sometimes they arrest black people for no reason,” he said. His landlord once had Mr. Appiah arrested, he said, because he had requested payment for plastering the interior of the man’s house.
In Libya there are a million and a half illegal immigrants. In the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya I don't think there are benefits or asylum to be had (Google "Libyan benefits system"), Gaddafi seeming to hold to the socialist maxim "if you don't work you die", so they all work.
Sub-Saharan Africans make up a vast majority of the estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants among Libya’s population of 6.5 million, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many were desperately poor people made even more so by investments of up to $1,000 each to pay smugglers to bring them across Libya’s southern border for a chance at better work in its oil economy... They are trapped in part because most lack passports or other documents necessary to board a plane or cross the border. They say they are afraid to leave the airport or try their luck on the roads to the border for fear of assaults by Libyan citizens or at militia checkpoints.
“Qaddafi has brought African soldiers to kill some of them, so if they see black people they beat them,” said Samson Adda, 31, who said residents of Zawiyah, a rebellious city, had beaten him so badly that he could no longer walk.
I keep hearing about the massive unemployment in Egypt, Libya's next door neighbour, and I seem to recall that Gaddafi was once keen on uniting the two countries in an Arab Republic. Why on earth aren't 1.6m Egyptians working in Libya ? I guess illegal immigrants are cheaper and have fewer rights.
I digress. It's possible that, win or lose, there'll be another Camp Of The Saints style boat exodus to Europe. If Gaddafi wins, there's no knowing what he'd do. If he loses due to intervention the current hefty influx may well increase. The EU doesn't seem to be interested.
"More than 3,000 kilometers away, on the 22nd floor of a Warsaw skyscraper is Frontex, the EU agency charged with border security. It has no ships or helicopters of its own, nor any autonomous decision-making power. Contributions are entirely voluntary, meaning those most affected by immigration flows bear the brunt of the costs. On Feb. 20, Frontex launched operation Hermes, named after the winged Greek god, to assist the authorities in Lampedusa. Italy is providing the most equipment: two patrol boats and a plane.
“Frontex does not replace the border-control activities of members states as these are performed by, and remain the primary responsibility of the latter,” said Frontex spokesman Michal Parzyszek. Interior ministers from six EU countries near the Mediterranean Sea called on member states last month to back the creation of a special fund that will help them cope with an “uncontrolled” influx of immigration from Libya. Their appeal has gone nowhere."
UPDATE - BBC News :
23:44:Libyan state television cites a senior security source as saying that Libya has decided to "absolve itself from taking responsibility for stemming illegal immigration to Europe".
Not to mention :
"Libya will be practising its right of self-defence according to clause 51 of the UN Charter. Unfortunately, according to this, civilian and military targets in the air and sea will be liable to serious danger in the Mediterranean. Due to this flagrant military aggression and this irresponsible action, the Mediterranean and North Africa have become an actual theatre of war."
Gaddafi knows that if he loses, he loses big, so he's capable of trying anything. He'll try and take the temple roof with him. On the other hand, that kind of statement - a threat to attack civilian ships and aircraft - makes it easier to justify removing him "with extreme prejudice".
* as in Libya, so in Sudan.