ZUWARAH, LIBYA — On the northern edge of Africa, this historic transportation hub between Europe and Africa is just 180 miles from the small Italian island of Lampedusa. It's one of the many European islands that thousands of illegal migrants from northern and sub-Saharan Africa attempt to reach annually.
For decades, despite pressure from Europe, Libya has turned a blind eye to the flow of African migrants who cross its borders on their way to find work across the Mediterranean. But now as Libya, which remains under the rule of Col. Muammar Qaddafi, returns from years of international isolation and sanctions, it is beginning to heed European requests to help stem the influx of migrants trafficked annually into Europe.
An estimated 1.5 million to 2 million migrants live and work in Libya. About half of those are considered illegal, says Laurence Hart, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tripoli. He says that many Africans, who have a harder time reaching Europe via Morocco because of tighter restrictions, have turned to Libya.
In an effort to reduce the swelling number of migrants, Libya announced last month that all immigrants would have to obtain a work contract or face deportation. Many illegals, mainly from Morocco, but also from countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana, work odd jobs in Libya to earn enough money to pay for the final leg of their journey to Europe.
"There have been a lot of police raids since this measure passed, showing that Libyan authorities are serious this time," says Mr. Hart. "But it has to be accompanied with reasons that people understand, otherwise they are scared ... we don't have anything in writing of what the procedures are."
Over the last several years, Italy has tried to persuade Libya to take greater control over its borders. But relations between Italy and its former colony remain rocky as Colonel Qaddafi continues to demand that Italy pay reparations for years of oppressive colonial rule.
While official figures on the impact of new Libyan migration rules are not available, anecdotal evidence shows that government policy is having an impact.
"There were lots of [sub-Saharan] Africans here. They came in lorries illegally without visas but since the new regulation they don't come as much," says Ashraf, a store keeper on Zuwarah's main road.
Rawad, another merchant in Zuwarah, says many in the town have gotten involved in the lucrative trade. "Even kids, 25-years-old, they have millions of dinars" in profits, he says, from going to nearby African countries like Morocco and returning with trucks packed with illegal migrants.
"Some people spend months or even years in ... houses waiting for the right moment to go or the money that will allow them to make the final journey to Italy. The migrants are not allowed to leave the house and their day-to-day needs depend on the smugglers who provide them with food and drinks," according to IOM staffer Simona Moscarelli, who posted an account of migrants' experiences traveling from Zuwarah to Lampedusa on the agency's website.
Ms. Moscarelli wrote that the smuggling from Libya appeared more organized and systematic than from Tunisia, which is only 75 miles from Lampedusa. Illustrating the perils of the trip, Moscarelli described the journey of two women on a boat that capsized. Only 70 of the 120 people on the boat made it to Lampedusa, she wrote, some of the unknown number of people who die every year trying to make the journey.
Now, says the shopkeeper Rawad, Zuwarah is feeling the sting of the government crackdown. "It's such a problem. Everywhere I go the police ask me for my identification and I'm a Libyan."
The new enforcement may come as welcome news in Europe, but it may also revive criticisms already leveled at Libya for its treatment of sub-Saharan African migrants.
The concerted Libyan effort to regulate migration is problematic "because the rule of law [in Libya] is not like in Europe," says Hart. "But reservations could be expressed about the other activities going with it."
A Human Rights Watch report from last September criticized Libya for its arbitrary arrests of migrants, detaining them in substandard facilities, returning migrants to their home countries where they may face torture, and for not being signing the 1951 Refugee Convention, a part of the Geneva Conventions, that would obligate Libya to separate economic migrants from political asylum seekers.
Ibrahim, a radio journalist by trade, works at a posh restaurant in Tripoli in the hopes of saving $1,000 for school and helping support his family back in Niger. He says he knows of dozens of people who have been arrested under the recent crackdown and fears he will be next if he can't get a work contract.
The African migrant community in Libya has grown so large they have established an African Market in Tripoli. It's a walled warren of breeze block stalls painted on the outside to advertise what they offer. Men looking for jobs loiter in the quiet streets or heed the afternoon call to prayer of the mosques that are its anchors.
"It's busier in the morning because they make arrests in the afternoon," he says. He says this is a new African Market, opened under political pressure from some African leaders. The original one was shut down with 12 hours' notice by the authorities a year-and-a-half ago, he says, "Because we are nothing here."