Libya Puts Pressure On African Migration

Since the revolution against the Libyan government began in February, 850,000 people have left the country. That number is expected to rise, given the country's uncertain future. Steve Inskeep speaks to Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the effect of the Arab spring on massive migration across North Africa's borders.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, early in Libya's war, people were sometimes leaving the country at the rate of thousands per hour. Foreign workers were mainly fleeing the country. Now that rebels control Tripoli, a different kind of refugee is on the move, including some of Moammar Gadhafi's relatives, who slipped across the border into Algeria.

Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institution is tracking Libya's migrations.

Ms. ELIZABETH FERRIS (Brookings Institution): Whenever there's a turmoil such as this and a change in government and regime, people associated with that regime try to get out.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FERRIS: And there are rich people who have resources and homes elsewhere and bank accounts they can tap into. Poorer people tend to be displaced closer to home. So you'll have displacement inside Libya. You'll have people going to both borders, the Tunisian and the Egyptian, trying to find safety.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of two categories of people. One would be extreme Gadhafi loyalists or Gadhafi troops who perhaps people would not really be concerned about very much. But then there's another category of sub-Saharan Africans who migrated into Libya and there's concern now that they could be targeted because it would be assumed that they were mercenaries for Gadhafi whether they were or not.

Ms. FERRIS: Right. You know, Libya has a population of about six and a half million. It has two and a half million foreign workers. I mean, they're dispersed throughout society. They're mercenaries, but they also run shops and run public services and so on. And we've already have seen mass movements of those people outside the country.

And there's another category people who are likely to leave, and that's people who get caught up in the violence, who have experienced their house being destroyed or a child being killed, who think I've had it, I want to get out.

INSKEEP: You know, as you're talking, I am thinking about Iraq -devastating war, but it was really only after the fall of Saddam Hussein that really massive migrations, numbering in the millions of people, began.

Ms. FERRIS: Right. Iraq also offers another interesting parallel. And that is in 2003, after the U.S. invasion, there were 325,000 Iraqis who came back. You know, people who had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein who went back to start their lives. And then of course after 2006, really massive movements came as sectarian violence escalated.

INSKEEP: Have there been a lot of mass movements as the Arab spring has spread from country to country?

Ms. FERRIS: There have been mass movements. And we don't know - nobody's really keeping track of the statistics of how many people are moving. But you know, the big political imperative here is Europe. And I think one of the driving forces for NATO's intervention and European cause for intervention was the fear of hundreds of thousands of people arriving first probably in Lampedusa, this small Italian island very close to the Libyan shore...

INSKEEP: Oh yeah.

Ms. FERRIS: ...and from there going throughout the EU. I mean, so you have this fear, these mass movements of people, overwhelming European societies.

INSKEEP: Among the people in Libya, some of whom are Libyans, some of whom are from other countries, is there a population of people that nobody is going to claim? Maybe they migrated illegally to Libya in the first place and they have no papers.

Ms. FERRIS: There are people who migrated illegally. There are also people working in Libya who can't go home. For example, we think there are large numbers of Somalis. You know, no international organization is going to try to help people get back to Somalia.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to think of the dilemma of someone who fled from Somalia, which is utterly torn by war, to Libya, thinking it would be a more peaceful and prosperous place to live.

Ms. FERRIS: Right. But, you know, when you look at refugee movements, crazy things happen. You have Bosnians turning up in the middle of the Liberian civil war in search of safety. And I'm sure there are a lot of people who have turned up in Tripoli and Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya for reasons that are quite unique to their situations.

INSKEEP: So let me ask about the long-term possibilities here. Can you foresee permanent changes to North Africa, permanent changes to the Mediterranean region because of the Arab spring?

Ms. FERRIS: It all depends on what happens. If governments are able to establish themselves quickly and with a modicum of stability, there probably won't be mass movements outside of the country. But things are really uncertain.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll be watching in the months and years to come.

Ms. FERRIS: Right.

INSKEEP: Elizabeth Ferris, thanks very much.

Ms. FERRIS: Thanks.

INSKEEP: She's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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