Of ghosts and ghost towns, refugees and migrants…

Driving from Cairo to Benghazi by car first of all we drive down the highway towards Alexandria. It was not difficult to guess that Gamal Mubarak, son of the now ‘retired’ President of Egypt. When driving along I was looking forward to see El Alamein. I was wondering whether I might meet some ghosts from the great battles fought there during the second world war. Wikipedia reports about these battles:

“The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The battle took place over 14 days from 23 October – 5 November 1942. The First Battle of El Alamein had stalled the Axis advance. Thereafter, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery took command of the British Eighth Army from General Claude Auchinleck in August 1942. The Allied victory turned the tide in the North African Campaign. It ended Axis hopes of occupying Egypt, taking control of the Suez Canal, and gaining access to the Middle Eastern oil fields.”

Well, I did not meet any ghosts of these battles, probably because the Germans, British and Italians are maintaining very good cemeteries for the soldiers who died there, consequently I assume they are ‘resting in peace’. What I found to my surprise however where ‘ghost towns’. Ghost towns consisting of thousands of empty holiday apartments. Very few had some signs of occupancy. El Alamein is on Egypt’s ‘North Coast’ on the Mediterranean Sea. Consequently some clever entrepreneurs thought they could sell these holiday apartments. Sell they did it, I assume, however, that does not mean that a lot of people actually use them. ‘Beach apartments’ not within walking distance to the beach are not very convenient. To create an atmosphere just ‘dumping’ buildings into the sand is not sufficient. I felt very uncomfortable to see these ‘developments’. Well, who knows in a few years they might even be used.

After passing El Alamein I drove on to Salum, the border town between Egypt and Libya. After checking into the one and only hotel I visited our staff residence (colleagues from the International Organization for Migration). After a nice cup of tea I was sufficiently rested to go to the border to visit the refugee camp there, on the Egyptian side of the border. This camp held more than 10’000 migrants and refugees until recently. Now the occupants are down to 1200.

May be briefly I may explain the difference between a Migrant and a Refugee. A Migrant is a person who can go back to his country, a Refugee is a person who cannot (simply put). Many Migrants from Libya arrive without any passport and identity documents. By word of mouth they know that they should contact the representatives of the International Organization for Migration at the camp. IOM will contact their embassies and help them to obtain travel documents. Once travel documents are obtained a ticket is booked back to their home countries, curtesy of funding from the European Union (who want to ensure that they do not come their way). At present out of the 1200 persons about 200 are migrants waiting for their travel documents and tickets, the rest are refugees who have difficulties to return home, such as persons from Somalia, Darfur etc. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is trying to find other countries that might take them in.

I found the mood in the camp quite positive, because either the migrants know that they will get a ticket soon or the refugees stay on at their own decision, hoping for asylum somewhere (some of them might well be disappointed after a while, but in the mean time they do get decent food…).

The drive on to Benghazi the next day was uneventful. This part of Libya seems to be really peaceful by now.

Categories: Africa, Egypt, Libya

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