In 2010 Muammar al-Qaddafi visited Italy and threatened to turn Europe “into Africa” if he didn’t get $7 billion. The late Libyan said his government needed more money to stem the tide of sub-Saharan Africans who use Libya as a jumping-off point to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Standing next to Silvio Berlusconi, he said:
"We don't know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans. … We don't know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions."
The ugly, racist remarks were at odds with Qaddafi’s more typical pan-Africanist rhetoric, but also demonstrated that he knew his audience. European governments concerned about a tide of unauthorized migrants might be willing to pay up for him to keep the door to Europe shut. Meanwhile, the Libyan government was accused of subjecting migrants to indefinite detention and torture.
Libya’s new government uses less crude language, but apparently the basic message is still the same: Pay us to keep these people out of your continent:
“With regards to illegal immigration, I am warning the world, and the European Union in particular, that if they do not shoulder the responsibility with us, the state of Libya will take a position on this matter that could facilitate the quick passage of this flood of people through Libya since God has made us a transit point for this flood," [Interior Minister] Salah Mazek told a news conference on Saturday.
Mazek said Libya was "suffering" because thousands of mainly sub-Saharan Africans were spreading disease, crime and drugs in the North African nation, the AFP news agency reported. "Libya has paid the price. Now it's Europe's turn to pay," Mazek added.
More than 22,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of this year, Al Jazeera notes, more than 10 times the number from last year.
Instability in North Africa since the Arab Spring has likely contributed to the uptick in migration. Given that the government in Tripoli is not in control of a large swath of the country’s territory, it isn’t surprising that migrants and the people-smugglers who prey on them favor the country.
In the end of course, while governments continue to squabble over the problem, migrants continue to make the highly dangerous passage, contributing to a growing humanitarian crisis. Thirty-six migrants died and 42 are missing this week after their rickety boat capsized over the Libyan coast.