Magazine article The Spectator

Boris Johnson: This Is a Moment of Hope for Libya

Magazine article The Spectator

Boris Johnson: This Is a Moment of Hope for Libya

Article excerpt

This devastated country can have a great future - but it must compromise

We were in a detention centre for migrants in Tripoli and we came to a big locked door. It was impressively bolted and padlocked. Someone murmured that we didn't have time to look inside. But I felt somehow obliged to do so.

Outside in the sun I had already said hello to about 100 migrants -- almost all of them from West Africa: Guinea-Conakry and Nigeria. They were sitting on the concrete in rows, their heads in their hands; the men in one group, and about half a dozen women a little way off. They had been here for months, in some cases, and they wanted to go home.

'J'ai faim,' said one of the men. 'C'est pas bon ici,' said another. When I said that I was the British Foreign Secretary they cheered and clapped, because it is UK cash that is helping them to find a way out. It is (at least partly) thanks to UK taxpayers that this group were about to be put on buses and taken to the airport.

As they told me, they had first intended to go to western Europe. Their plan had been to get to 'France, Allemagne, Grande-Bretagne'. They had paid people smugglers [euro]1,500 each -- a huge sum, more than their annual wage. Then they had been intercepted, detained -- or rescued, depending on your point of view -- and sent here.

It was thanks to UK investment that this centre seemed at least vaguely hygienic, in spite of the press of humanity. We had been shown the new latrines, and even though they were not yet finished, you could sense that an effort was being made. But now we had come to a series of locked doors, and I felt I had to understand the scale of the problem. 'Just look, don't go in,' I was advised. The bolts clanked open.

It was like a scene from some hellish Victorian etching about prison life. In the first set of rooms were the criminals, men -- they were all young sub-Saharan Africans -- who had been picked up by the Libyan authorities (an array of militias), arrested for dealing in drugs and other misdemeanours.

The next room was vast -- the size of a football field -- and contained about 500 souls, lying serried on towels or mats. I started again to talk to them, in French, but some sort of commotion began. People began drifting towards us. Our minders suggested it was time to move on. I had wanted to see behind that locked door -- and the true scale of the problem this centre is dealing with -- because once again the numbers are starting to swell.

The migration season is upon us. The winds are calm, and on the level sea the loathsome flesh traffickers are intensifying their trade. Already about 1,000 migrants a week are making landfall in Italy, with an unknown number perishing in the sea, in the desert and in centres like the one I saw.

Every week they will be pressing on up the European road network to wherever will have them. On the plane to Tripoli, the UN special representative, Martin Kobler, showed me a breathtaking demographic map -- the root of the problem.

Twenty years ago we were so naive as to think that global population growth was slowing. Not any more -- certainly not in Africa. Immediately to Libya's south is Niger, where the population is predicted to treble in the next three decades, from 20 million to 72 million. To the east of Niger -- and sharing another vast border with Libya -- is Chad, set to leap from 14 million to 35 million. To the south-east, Sudan is heading for 80 million, Egypt for 152 million, Ethiopia to 189 million.

Add in the vast human production line of West Africa -- where Nigeria alone is set to hit 400 million -- and you can see why these detainees are just the harbingers of what will be one of the great challenges of our lives. The population of Africa already stands at 1.2 billion, but is growing so fast that it is impossible to see how the continent can provide enough jobs for its people.

No wonder that they look north, to the immense prosperity of our elderly European continent -- where the population is actually falling (it is predicted to decline from 740 million to 707 million by 2050). …

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