Behind the tragedy of the Libyan boat people

On Sunday 15 February the Italian Coastguard and Navy launched a massive rescue operation near the Italian island of Lampedusa to save 2,164 people fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. Two days before that, 600 were rescued 50 miles off of the Libyan coast, while on 11 February over 300 refugees from Libya died in what the United Nations has described as “the most dangerous route in the world.”

On that Wednesday which proved so costly for these upwards of 300 people, no one will ever know the exact number who set off. They were cram-packed into rubber dinghies owned by traffickers, with nothing in the way of food or water supplies and no safety equipment, left to run the gauntlet of 30-foot high waves, lashing rain and gale-force winds. In 2014 more than 170,000 refugees had made this perilous trip from Libya to Italy and over 3,200 had perished attempting it. The Italians had asked their EU partners for financial assistance in the rescues of the refugees, which were costing around 9 million euros a month, whereupon in November, the EU ‘Triton’ mission took over from the Italian Navy’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ all the search and rescue operations in this area. Triton, with a budget of 2.9 million euros a month, uses small patrol boats rather than a large Naval vessel and is run by the EU borders agency ‘Frontex’ which restricts its patrols generally to the territorial waters of member states. The last sentence sums up the reasons that humanitarian groups had predicted a catastrophe when Triton took over. There is understandable anger in Italy at the fact that nothing is paid by other EU countries towards the cost of looking after these refugees, even by Britain or France, who were, along with the US, were principal perpetrators among the imperialist powers of the humanitarian nightmare into which Libya has descended. When these three imperialist hyenas used a combined NATO airforce and troops/mercenaries/jihadis from many countries to overthrow the Libyan state, in the process torturing and murdering its President, Muammer Gaddafi, in order to get control of the Libyan oil, they unleashed a Dark Age of war, famine and religious intolerance. The popular feeling in Italy, was even expressed in a BBC interview by a member of Berlusconi’s Party whose view was that everything in Libya was better under Gaddafi; there were no thousands of boat people trying to escape to Italy from the horror that now grips that country, and that as the French, British and US destabilised Libya they should shoulder the financial burden resulting from their meddling.

So what is the situation in Libya that makes it worth the risk of clinging to an overcrowded rubber boat bouncing across waves the height of three-storey houses in a deluge of rain and extremely high winds in a bid to escape from it? In the three and a half years since President Gaddafi was mutilated and executed without trial in a Libyan street for the western cameras the number of people living and working in Libya has shrunk. The Africans and black Arabs who were not lynched by the fascistic groups (including Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia) funded, armed and supported by imperialism during that counter-revolution have long since left, as have many of the foreign companies which had operated in Libya. Indeed, there is little work in Libya now except for killers or people-traffickers. There are still some Arab or Western oil-workers in some places but, as there are still warring factions fighting for ownership of wells and oil ports, it is a more than usually dangerous occupation. For everybody else, whether fighting or not, Libyan life is merely trying to survive on a daily basis and escape if possible.

Once the war against Gaddafi was won by the various puppets of imperialism, most of the foreign media exited the country, leaving, on the one hand, many thousands of corpses and broken towns behind them that were no longer news and, on the other, many small wars going on between the puppets themselves that imperialism didn’t want reported. Many Gaddafi loyalists also left Libya to regroup. The murderous gangs of the ‘victorious’ National Transitional Council (NTC) continued their custom of exterminating those they considered opponents before eventually handing ‘power’ to an ‘elected’ General National Congress’ (GNC) under Prime Minister Abderaheem el-Keeb in 2012. This GNC was charged with producing a constitution and preparing elections. The situation was still one of kidnappings and assassinations by all the different groups, factions and tribes in what could only be described as ‘turf-wars’, although the green flag of Gaddafi often appears and the groups who had made up the NTC rats then suddenly come to grief in a hail of gunfire. Even the US overlords were not safe and J Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. It is still not known who was responsible for that attack but it clearly shook US imperialism that their representatives were not as safe as they had presumed.

In the 2014 UN-supervised elections, the overtly Islamic parties did poorly and the present generally-recognised government was formed by the so-called ‘Dignity’ coalition. The Islamic parties/groups allied themselves with various tribes and the Misuratan militias, among others, to form an alternative government and ‘army,’ if either side can really claim to have an army in the accepted sense, and this coalition was named ‘Libyan Dawn’ or Dawn for short.

Libyan Dawn attacked and took Tripoli while the Dignity government scuttled off to Tobruk where it remains locked in to this day. There are two Prime Ministers, two governments and two military groupings. In Tripoli, once a flagship of Gaddafi’s policy of racial and sexual equality, it is now forbidden for women to leave the city without a male chaperone, beauty salons have been closed, education is segregated by sex, libraries, art colleges and Sufi mosques have been attacked, and one poor woman was recently arrested for witchcraft. All embassies in Tripoli were closed after Libyan Dawn captured the city with the exception of Italy’s, although even that ceased business in mid-February this year. Journalists tend to shun Tripoli now and have been told to stay out of Tobruk totally.

The battle for control of the country’s oil rages wherever there is a mine or storage depot, and, after a missile hit a storage tank during a battle for the oil pipeline terminals at al Sidr and Ras Lanuf causing a huge black plume of toxic smoke to rise over the area for nine days at a cost of 1.8 million barrels of oil, the UN have been pleading with both sides not to target these sites

The Dignity group were already looking stronger militarily and had a couple of older MIGs and some helicopters to call an airforce. The Dawn group have the backing of Qatar, but Dignity can claim the backing of both Egypt and the UAE and were looking as if they could eventually take back control of all the oil – until the jihadi headbangers of the Islamic State turned up, that is! The two-way war could now turn into a three-way war as the IS stake their claim to Libya. Neither of the coalitions was looking too secure and the Misurata militias are definitely worried about some of the other members of their Libya Dawn coalition: one Dawn field commander, Salah Jabu, from a Misurata militia told a journalist ” our next fight will be with Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State.

The arrival of IS and their particularly bestial behaviour, displayed for the world to see in the recent capture and filmed beheading of 21 innocent and defenceless Egyptian Coptic Christians, has pulled Egypt further into the Libyan fray leading it to send jets to bomb IS targets in Derna in eastern Libya in retaliation for the killing of the Coptic aid workers on Monday 16 February. In a counter retaliation IS exploded three car bombs in the town of Qubbah, killing 42 people, including 5 Egyptians, and wounding 70 others.

Italy may yet intervene in Libya on the side of the Dignity group following an interview with Il Messaggero newspaper on 15 February in which the Defence Minister, Roberta Pinotti, said that ” Italy was ready to lead a coalition from Europe and North African states to battle against the advance of jihadists in Libya.” She also said that “the risk is imminent, we cannot wait any longer. Italy has national defence needs and cannot have a caliphate ruling across the shores from us.” Moreover the Italian Prime Minister stated on TV on 14 February that Italy was committed to intervention in Libya.

So much of Libya lies in ruin, so many Libyans have suffered at the hands of Western imperialism’s ploys to control most of the oil in the world, but it seems that they haven’t finished with poor Libya yet. These humanitarian tragedies are created as much by the imperialist British government as any of the other imperialist nations or their puppets and they are the business of British workers. When we throw our imperialists off our backs and grasp control of the means of production and war here in Britain and put them to the service of workers and the defence of that workers state only, then the rest of the world will be a little bit safer as well.

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