The Arab Spring of 2011 ran into a cold, dark hell in Libya, the once-prosperous nation on the eastern tip of Africa, with its extensive coastline on the Mediterranean Sea that separated it from Europe. Four decades under the strongman Muammar Gaddafi had seen it withdraw into a sort of isolation from the rest of the world, but for 6 million Libyans, there was free education , free medicine, and oil and gas resources to last generations. The regime itself, like any regime that last for decades, had run out of ideas to light the way to a future filled with hope and drive, particularly for the young, many of whom found it difficult to find jobs and build careers and gain a sense of self that lends life its essential meaning. And so despite all the freebies, a disillusionment of sorts was never far away.
In his early years, Gaddafi had gained much popularity particularly throughout the Muslims world by extending his country’s largesse to sundry causes around the Muslim world. His government also embarked on a policy to bring in multitudes of migrant labour, mostly professionals like doctors and engineers, from Muslim countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan to fill some of the essential gaps in the economy.
As the country descended into the abyss of a civil war prompted by the ugly downfall of its former dictator, the situation facing the Bangladeshi migrant population there grew increasingly adverse, dragging the country into the migrant crisis that has engulfed Europe, peaking around 2015-17 as the war in Syria as well raged on. Reports of Bangladeshis fleeing, or looking to flee, surfaced intermittently over the first two years. Fearing for their life, many were looking to return home while some were embarking on the risky boat journeys to Europe across the Mediterranean. Till the end of 2016, Syrians - by some margin as well - made up the largest group of migrants attempting treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea, followed by Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans and sub-Saharan Africans. In the first three months of that year, just one Bangladeshi arrived in Italy, but then in 2017, just the first 5 months saw that number climb to more than 2,800, making the country the largest single state of origin of migrants arriving on European shores.
According to Foreign Ministry officials, though nearly 37,000 migrants were repatriated from Libya since 2011, an estimated 40,000 Bangladeshis still worked there in 2015. As the numbers reveal, Libya was historically one of Bangladeshi economic migrants’ more favoured nations to pack the bags for . And with white-collar jobs also on offer, very often the family came with you to live in some charming city on the coast, where evenings would pass in the marina among tourists, some daytrippers, and upwardly mobile locals, plus of course migrants. All of this was lost on the nation though, as amid all the war and violence and destruction all around, Libya was for all intents and purposes divided in two. There was an internationally-recognised, UN-backed administration based in Tripoli, and somewhere out there in the mystical ‘east’, was Khalifa Haftar, a former general turned ‘warlord’, who was reputed to run the rest of this vast landscape. So the long term balance of power in such a scenario did always favour him, yet none of the brokers involved were even trying to bring about some sort of peaceful transition in what by now resembled little more than forsaken land.
It was finally at the start of April that the move came from Haftar. And it was just like that - one fine day, Libyans woke to hear that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar was indeed at the head of a move by forces from the east of the country towards the capital Tripoli. His history paints Haftar as the ultimate pragmatist. He supported Gaddafi in his 1969 coup, then found himself in Langley, Virginia in the 90s where he gained US citizenship, before returning to overthrow Gaddafi in the 2011 conflict. Since then, he has been one of many strongmen claiming pre-eminence in the nation’s descent into disarray, based in the city of Benghazi and exerting most of his control in eastern Libya.
Tripoli, Libya’s heavily populated capital where warring militia occasionally spar for control, has always struck its residents as yearning to be taken hold of, to be held, to be controlled but not grasped, not quite - residents acknowledge the futility of this state of always-becoming, and never-arriving, and perhaps it was this tendency to avoid form that always prevented the UN-recognized and Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj from fully grasping the reins of power over this bewitching Mediterranean outpost, wedged high in the north-west, almost imperiously perched to look down on the rest of the country.
Western diplomats still hover in the city, many out of station and all somewhat bemused by the turn of events that now puts a somewhat quixotic character from their time here in years gone by, in pole position so to speak, to be the next leader of the country.
“To our army stationed on the border of Tripoli today, we continue the march of struggle and response to the appeal of our people in the capital as we promised them,” said Haftar, who heads the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), in an audio recording posted on his media office’s Facebook account. He added that “safety of our foreign guests and our institutions” should be ensured.
The hour of tragedy
The Bangladesh Embassy in Libya advised all Bangladeshi nationals living in Tripoli—and its adjacent cities—to remain alert so as to avoid untoward incidents; because the government of the country has issued a “state of alert.” The government of Libya issued a state of alert corresponding in response to the recent state of law and order in the country, reported our sister newsagency UNB.
The government planned to bring home the Bangladeshis facing high level of vulnerabilities in and around Tripoli, as fighting continued between the UN-backed Libyan government and Libyan National Army. A number of upto 5,000 had been mentioned as part of the government’s repatriation plan in conjunction with IOM.
“Fifty Bangladeshis have agreed for voluntary repatriation. We will charter a plane as soon as the number reaches 150. IOM assists us in the repatriation process,” ASM Ashraful Islam, counsellor (labour) of Bangladesh embassy in Tripoli relayed, as things really heated up in early May. air strikes hit the Libyan capital as forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar pursued a three-week campaign to take over Tripoli and also confirmed for the first time that they had dispatched a warship to an oil port.
Around 300 Bangladeshi workers had been relocated to the labour accommodations in safe zones of Tripoli since early April, when the Libyan National Army launched assault on Tripoli.
For all his talk and all the hope and strength he offered at the start of it all, Haftar’s campaign, although violently unsettling, was actually failing to move things on the ground. The offensive has exacerbated chaos in the country, , threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scupper UN plans for an election to end rivalries between rival administrations in east and west.More than 450 people have been killed due to fighting linked to the campaign, according to the World Health Organization.
Where dreams go drown
Bilal had no idea what he would face when he embarked on the journey from Bangladesh’s Sylhet region, where he had seen villagers with relatives in Europe live a better life. After his family sold their land, the father of two paid a Bangladeshi smuggler nicknamed “Good Luck” around US$7,000 (Tk 6 lakh) to arrange the trip.
“He said we would have a better life and we believed him. I am sure most of the people he sends die on the way,” no he says. On May 10, he and the other migrants left northwestern Libya on a large boat, before being transferred to a smaller one. Manzour Mohammed Metwella, an Egyptian who was on board, said the boat “started to sink almost immediately.”
“We swam all night,” said the 21-year-old.
Survivors said all the passengers were men, with 51 from Bangladesh, three Egyptians, several Moroccans, Chadians and other Africans. After seeing people drown in front of his eyes, Bilal said he “was losing hope myself, but God sent us the fishermen who saved us.”
The fishermen were able to rescue 14 Bangladeshis, one Moroccan, and the Egyptian Metwella.
“If the Tunisian fishermen hadn’t seen them, there wouldn’t have been any survivors and we would have never known about this” boat sinking, said Mongi Slim from the Red Crescent.
The survivors now have 60 days to decide whether to return home, seek asylum through the United Nations refugee agency, or try their luck in Tunisia. But there is no asylum law in Tunisia and residents are already facing high unemployment and overstretched public services.
“We lost so much, I have nothing now,” said Bilal, admitting he still wants to reach Europe to earn money. “But I don’t want to go on the sea like this again, I am done with this risk.”
Humanitarian organisations have faced hostility from governments for running rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS) has confirmed the identities of 27 Bangladesh nationals who died in Friday’s boat capsize in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to reach Europe from Libya.
The victims are Nasir (Noakhali), Kamran (Tongi), Zillur Rahman, Limon Ahmed, Abdul Aziz, Ahmed, Zillur, Rafique, Ayat, Amajal, Kasim Ahmed, Khokan, Rubel, Monir, Belal, Maruf and Ripon (Sylhet), Jalal Uddin and Al-Amin (Kishoreganj), Mahbub (Sunamganj), Sajib (Madaripur), Parvej and Kamrun Ahmed Maruf (Shariatpur), Shamim and Fahad (Moulavibazar), Mahbub and Nadim (Sunamganj), according to BDRCS.
BDRCS’ Restoring Family Links (RFL) wing director Imam Zafar Sikder said they have confirmed the identities of 27 Bangladeshis after talking to four Bangladeshi survivors over phone through an official of Tunisia Red Crescent. He also said five bodies have been recovered. The recovery of bodies, provided the location of the accident, may take several days.
Around 40-45 Bangladesh nationals attempting to reach Europe from Libya on a second vessel remain missing from Friday in the Mediterranean Sea, said an official on Tuesday, five days later.
“Two boats -- one carrying around 50 and another 70 people – set out at the same time on May 9 (night). The first one possibly reached Italy while the second one capsized,” ASM Ashraful Islam, labour counsellor of Bangladesh Embassy in Tripoli, told UNB. He said 14 Bangladesh nationals were rescued alive from the capsized boat and one body was recovered. The boat reportedly left from Libya’s Zouara. Ashraful Islam identified the body as Uttam Kumar, hailing from Naria, Shariatpur.
Earlier, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said around 30-35 Bangladesh nationals might have died in the boat capsize. Bangladesh Ambassador to Libya Sk Sekander Ali and labour counselor Ashrasul Islam are now in Tunisia to assess the situation. Zafar Sikder said they are in constant touch with Tunisia Red Cross Society, Bangladesh Embassy in Tripoli and Foreign Ministry here to get update on the matter.
Friday’s accident was dubbed the “deadliest migrant boat sinking since January” by the International Organization for Migration.
Although arrivals were markedly down compared to the large numbers who reached Italy each year between 2014-2017 or Greece in 2015, the journeys were as dangerous as ever. An estimated 2,275 people perished in the Mediterranean in 2018 – an average of six deaths every day. On several occasions, large numbers of often traumatised and sick people were kept at sea for days before permission to disembark was granted, sometimes only after other states had pledged to relocate the majority of those who had been rescued. By the end of the year, this situation had not been resolved despite UNHCR’s and IOM’s continuous call to establish a predictable regional disembarkation mechanism in the Mediterranean Basin.
Furthermore, the Libyan Coast Guard stepped up its operations with the result that 85% of those rescued or intercepted in the newly established Libyan Search and Rescue Region (SRR) were disembarked in Libya, where they faced detention in appalling conditions (including limited access to food and outbreaks of disease at some facilities, along with several deaths). As a result, more vessels containing refugees and migrants attempted to sail beyond the Libyan SRR to evade the coast guard – either to make land in Malta and Italy or at least to reach the search and rescue regions of those jurisdictions. This trend is expected to continue in 2019. Although the overall number of deaths at sea in the Central Mediterranean more than halved in 2018 compared to the previous year, the rate of deaths per number of people attempting the journey rose sharply. On the crossing from Libya to Europe, for instance, the rate went from one death for every 38 arrivals in 2017 to one for every 14 arrivals last year.