Migrants in Libya are faced with three equally grim choices: they can take their chances crossing the Mediterranean in an unsafe smuggler’s boat; return home via an equally perilous route through the desert; or stay in Libya, where work is limited and conditions miserable and insecure. More speak of going forward or back. No one wants to remain in Libya, which has descended into civil war since the 2011 uprising that that dislodged long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi from power.
Many still see the boats as their only option. Libya’s crumbling economy has reduced employment opportunities in a country once viewed as a lucrative place to work. “I’m really scared about taking the boat, but what else can I do?” said 31-year-old Mohamed, a labourer from Sudan currently working in Tripoli. For every migrant who chooses to return home, many more are still prepared to risk the boat journey. Even knowing friends and family who have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean is not always a deterrent. Porthé, 28, from Senegal, said he was still saving for the voyage despite having lost both his parents when they attempted the crossing two months ago. “I am told they died at sea and I believe it because I never heard anything from them again, but I will still go. I have no family and nothing in Senegal now, so I will place my life in God’s hands.”
“I’m not going in that sea,” said 23-year-old James, from Ghana. “No way. I thought I would, but now I see the reality, no way.” He travelled to Libya a year ago, planning to follow in the footsteps of his brother, who successfully made the crossing to Italy in 2013. “He told me not to come. He has been there two years and still has no papers, no work and no money. He said it was too hard to make a life in Italy and told me to stay here in Libya or go back home. “I don’t know what I will do. I can’t go back through the desert – it was too hard and there was too much suffering. I didn’t even care if I died by the end of the third day in the desert.” How to pay for the return journey also presents a problem, with labourers and tradesmen struggling to find regular work. The dollar is now strong against the Libyan dinar on the black market, meaning prices for places on a boat have fallen to as little as $500, often less than the cost of the arduous overland desert route. “It would take me a year to save the money to make that journey home, if I don’t get robbed,” James said.