Migrants' European dream ends in Tripoli cemetery

9th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

With its long coastline, Libya has become a favoured jumping off point for migrants, especially from Africa, in their desperate search for a better life in Europe.

Tripoli -- The European dreams of hundreds of illegal immigrants have, over the years, come to a brutal end when their rickety boats capsized off Libya's Mediterranean coast and their bodies washed ashore.

Today the bodies lie in unmarked graves in the Sidi Hamed cemetery in Tripoli's residential Gargaresh neighbourhood under tombstones reading "identity unknown" or merely "African national."

With 1,770 kilometres (1,106 miles) of coastline, Libya has become a favoured jumping off point for migrants, especially from Africa, in their desperate search for a better life in Europe.

A grey brick wall surrounds the tombs that have been dug over the years by other migrants whiling away their time in Libya by raising funds for the crossing to Europe.

"This part of the cemetery has become overcrowded and now they are being buried also in other cemeteries," said Ahmed, an Egyptian migrant who declined to give his family name, as he jabbed a shovel into the earth to dig a new grave.

"I did not leave my country to do this kind of job," he added unhappily.

As he worked under scorching heat this week, Libyan coastguards were scouring the Mediterranean sea in search of more than 200 illegal migrants missing feared drowned, days after their boat capsized.

Libyan officials and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said 23 people were rescued when their boat sank in a storm on Sunday with 257 migrants on board. Only 21 bodies were recovered after the tragedy.

Ahmed knows that he could pay with his life in his bid to reach Europe but is philosophical about the risks.

"If I die it will be the will of God," he says.

He is among more than one million illegal migrants estimated by the IOM to be waiting in Libya to make the perilous journey by sea to Europe, via Italy or Malta.

Another is Mohammed, a 35-year-old Nigerian who has not seen his wife or his daughter since he first came to Libya seven years ago to raise funds for the trip to Europe.

Mohammed, who would only give one name, said he needs to pay smugglers some 2,000 euros (around 2,650 dollars) for the crossing.

"I have not been able to save so far because I also have to send money each month to my family," he said.

"Our Libyan employers don't always pay us on time and we cannot complain out of fear that they denounce us to the authorities," he added.

For IOM representative in Tripoli Laurence Hart "this is a tragedy and a vicious circle."

The migrants "feel humiliated" if they cannot raise the fare to Europe and the shame of having to return home empty-handed forces many of them to stay on illegally in Libya, said Hart.

"The illegal migrants are very vulnerable. They have no medical or legal assistance" -- either in life or in death, he said.

Such is the case of the two unidentified bodies that washed ashore on a Libyan beach nearly one year ago and which have since been kept in the morgue of the Garaboulli hospital of Tripoli.

The independent Oea newspaper, quoting a hospital official, said that the authorities have not given them permission to bury the cadavers.

Unfortunate in life, some of the migrants whose bodies have been plucked from the sea have finally found peace in the so-called Christian cemetery of Tripoli alongside the tombs of Italian and British soldiers who fell during World War II.

A plot in the cemetery has been dedicated to the "anonymous migrants" regardless of the religious affiliations.

"The ordeal of the families is without limits," an African diplomat said about relatives of dead migrants who have been unable to trace their whereabouts.

"The fate of their loved ones will always remain unknown," he said.

Rome and Tripoli are expected to launch joint sea patrols on May 15 in a bid to end the heavy influx of illegal migrants that use Libya as a transit point to Italy, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Marono said in March.

Italy and Libya signed a deal in August 2008 in which Tripoli committed to reinforce the fight against illegal immigration by taking part in joint sea patrols.

Nearly 37,000 illegal immigrants landed on Italian coasts in 2008, a 75 percent rise from 2007, according to the Italian interior ministry.

Imed Lamloum/AFP/Expatica

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