When I first wrote about the Libyan uprising and the US’ role in helping the rebels, I wondered about the reasons that Britain and France might have for a) wanting to help the rebels militarily, and b) wanting the US to help with their efforts.
Turns out that I’d seriously underestimated the magnitude of the Libyan refugee crisis that Gaddafi’s crackdown created.
How bad of a crisis? This bad: 400,000 persons have fled the country as of today. That’s out of a population of 6.4 million, meaning that one out every sixteen persons living in Libya back in early February has left Libya, very likely forever. 180,000 of that number had left, half of them for Tunisia, in the eleven days stretching from February 20 — when Gaddafi unleashed his helicopter gunships on protesters — to March 3.
Now, many of the refugees are themselves immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, and are simply returning to their own homelands. But many, if not most of them, are stuck in Tunisia and Egypt for the foreseeable future, joining displaced persons from Tunisia itself. And a fair number of them, not wanting to go back to their homelands — as one Nigerian immigrant to Libya said, “If our country was a very nice place to be, we would not have gone to a place like Libya” — are looking towards Europe.
In fact, there are a number on European soil already. Five thousand have landed at the island of Lampedusa, which though it belongs to Italy is much closer geographically to Libya. Over eight hundred have made it as far as Malta, and more are on the way to both Malta and Lampedusa, as well as other places around the Mediterranean Sea.
This exodus, on top of the Tunisian exodus, is starting to unnerve a lot of people, particularly right-wing nutjob politicians such as Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen (and who like her father is dismayingly popular in France), and commentators in Italy and France who like to periodically raise the specter of hordes of dark-skinned Africans overrunning the white people of Europe. Ironically, Gaddafi has used these fears to justify his continued rule, stating in December that “Europe will become black” if he is overthrown. However, the number of persons who have already fled as a result of his crackdowns has apparently made various European governments decide that they might be better off if Gaddafi were removed from power as quickly as possible.
So there you have it. No oil, no kowtowing to Al-Qaeda or the CIA, no imperialism, no US leading the rest of the world around. At its heart, it’s pretty much a desire to stop Gaddafi from causing even more people to flee and overwhelm the already-taxed refugee camps in Tunisia, much less Lampedusa or Malta. Whatever one thinks of the US’ involvement in a European and African issue, it’s not based on the motives so many people like to ascribe to it.
UPDATE: A quick note:
The number of refugees who left Libya in the eighteen days before NATO’s no-fly zone: around 300,000, at a rate of 14,000 a day.
The number who have left in the eighteen days since the NFZ was established to yesterday: around 100,000, or around 6,000 a day.
As I touched on earlier, one of the things that until now had made the European nations that make up NATO be relatively friendly to Gaddafi was his self-appointed role as the gatekeeper between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Playing on European racist fears, he worked to all but end unsanctioned African migration through Libya to Europe, he also has warned that “Europe will become black” through a torrent of uncontrolled refugees if he’s allowed to fall. However, since three times as many persons have fled Libya in the eighteen days before the NFZ as have fled in the eighteen days since the NFZ was established, his gatekeeper argument doesn’t carry the weight it once did among European leaders.
So again no, it’s not about oil or imperialism or cuddling up to Al-Qaeda. It’s about racism in large part, but it’s also about legitimate fears of seeing UNHCR efforts to keep Tunisian refugee camps, already swamped with Tunisian and Libyan refugees who can’t go home just yet, collapse under a swarm of Libyans fleeing Gaddafi’s crackdown, should he have been allowed to continue it uninterrupted. (In fact, when the rebels do well, many Libyan refugees take it as a sign they can come home; on the other hand, when Gaddafi does well, it increases refugee flow.)