Bureaucratic chaos and immigrant dreams of Europe

Libya's foreign labour policy benefits the big companies, but individual guest workers, qualified or not, have a hard time gaining legal access to many jobs even if they try to follow the rules.

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Musa Amadou shares one thing in common with thousands of other illegal workers in Libya. They have many names, different nationalities and varied hopes, but the one goal: to cross over to Europe. For Musa, who worked briefly in my garden, his real name and nationality are irrelevant. Furthermore, disclosing them could hurt his chances to achieve his overriding goal in life. He arrived in Tripoli after days of walking in the desert and watching dozens of his companions die of thirst. Out of a group of 36, only two made it to the city of Sabha in southern Libya. They worked there long enough to make money to come to Tripoli on the Mediterranean shores - ready to ride the next available boat of human traffickers making the dangerous voyage to Malta or the Italian island of Sicily.

The booming economy, security, political stability and proximity to European shores make Libya attractive to illegal economic migrants seeking work or trying to cross to Europe. However, Tripoli is no longer tolerating illegal workers. Under internal and external pressure, Libyan authorities are actively seeking to regulate the influx of workers, especially Africans. Last year Libya gave guest workers a deadline to get proper papers. That deadline has passed after being twice extended.

This month, however, the authorities seemed to become more serious, and widened the scope of regulations to include Egyptians, Tunisians and other nationalities. The result is fewer illegal workers in the streets of the capital and far fewer Egyptians than usual. However, the lack of clear procedures, bureaucratic chaos, and corruption make it difficult for many guest workers who wish to obey the law.

Ali, a Tunisian carpenter who has spent five years in Libya, has all the required papers qualifying him to get a work permit, yet he has been trying for the last six months without any luck. His problems are twofold: his workshop landlord, a Libyan, and the chaotic bureaucratic procedures. The landlord refuses to renew his workshop licence because it involves tax payments, while Ali lacks the right connections to get a work permit without it. It's a dilemma many Egyptians and Tunisians face in Libya, which means they will not get work permits under normal circumstances.

The country's foreign labour policy benefits the big companies, but individual guest workers, qualified or not, have a hard time gaining legal access to many jobs even if they try to follow the rules. Recruiting agencies are illegal in the country, making it even more difficult for talented guest workers to find the right jobs, depriving the growing private sector of skilled labour. Three weeks ago the immigration authorities started applying the new procedures to job seekers, business people and tourists coming by air into the country. Accordingly, guest workers are required to have a contract, business people will only be allowed in with an invitation, and tourists must have a minimum of US$1,000 (Dh3,670). However, the proper checks are still not in place, resulting in delays forcing the airlines, particularly in Egypt, to cancel flights. In turn, there has been an 80 per cent drop in bookings.

The official Libyan position on illegal migrants flocking into the country is always the same: there is no way to control the borders of the Sahara, and the roots of the problem are in a lack of jobs in sub-Saharan African countries. Libya has always called on rich European countries to contribute towards sustainable development and economic growth in African countries, which are the source of most illegal immigrants.

Over the last couple of years, Italy, Libya's main EU partner, has contributed technical and financial assistance to curb the transit of mainly African immigrants who end up on Italy's southern shores. The Italian help comes within the larger EU-Libya Framework Agreement, which has been in the making for over a year and is expected to be signed next month. The agreement would further assist Libya by offering economic incentives, and collective EU help to fight illegal immigration.

The Libyan authorities have never committed to a policy of totally eradicating illegal immigration because it would be an impossible goal to achieve. Given its vast area and long borders with sub-Saharan Africa, the country will never succeed in controlling the flow of people into its cities unless EU countries and international organisations start to view the immigration issue differently. Security has long been the prism through which immigration is considered. It's time to look into other factors such as poverty, lack of economic progress, lack of political stability, civil wars and, above all, the corruption that drives African migrants towards the north seeking a better life.

Libya, as a transit country, is carrying a heavy social and security burden because of the influx of thousand of illegal migrants. It is time that EU countries take the issue more seriously with political and economic partnerships with Libya concentrating more on the roots of the problem rather than its symptoms. Musa, and thousands of others like him, will always leave their homes if they cannot put food on the table for their families.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Tripoli-based academic and political analyst