It took Samuel Agustin more than a month to reach Tripoli from his home in the West African country of Benin, traveling by taxi and trudging hundreds of kilometers across the Sahara in blistering heat. That, he says, was the easy part. Since that journey three years ago, the 24-year-old former sociology student has been trying to find a way out of the Libyan capital. "We came here just to look for jobs," Agustin told Time last week on a crowded downtown sidewalk, where he washes cars for small change. "Now, since we don't have work, we don't have money. Without money, we cannot get to Europe. It's easy to get into Libya; it's hard to get out."
Getting out of Libya and Africa as a whole could get harder still. More than 11,000 illegal African immigrants have arrived in Sicily so far this year. The vast majority set off from the Libyan ports of Zlitan and Zuwarah, and land on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, just 120 km from the north African coast. Almost 1,800 arrived there just last week. But each year hundreds die in attempted crossings when their rickety fishing boats sink in the Mediterranean swells. Italy has begun an unprecedented crackdown on the new arrivals, who have become a hot political issue for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In the past, immigrants were typically given up to 60 days while the government checked their identities and assessed their status; now, most are flown back to Tripoli after a brief medical check. "It's quite scary," says opposition Senator Tana de Zulueta, who was in Lampedusa last week. "There is no access to even minimal standards of identification." Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu defended the measures, saying: "These are unwelcome decisions, but are nonetheless absolutely necessary to block a real organized assault on our coast."
Time got a rare look last week at the conditions in which some of Libya's would-be immigrants find themselves. In Tripoli's El-Fellah neighborhood, several hundred Ghanaians and Nigerians sleep in tents in a walled-off transit camp topped with coils of barbed wire and guarded by Libyan police. Although a police guard bolted the gate when Time walked toward it, migrants outside said the camp was overflowing. People are waiting for a flight, not to Europe, but back home. "Our embassies told us that Libya doesn't want us here," said 32-year-old Ati Moses from Ghana, squatting on his locked suitcase. "They will arrest us and deport us if we don't leave."
Berlusconi joined Libya's ruler Muammar Gaddafi in Zuwarah last week to attend the opening of a natural-gas pipeline linking the two countries, a joint project by the Italian oil company ENI and Libya's state oil producer NOC. Both men praised the prospect of Libyan natural gas flowing to Italy, but it could prove difficult to stop the unwelcome flow of immigrants. Officials in this oil-rich state admit they are not sad to see desperately poor Africans set course for Europe. And if Europeans really want to stop illegal immigration, they argue, they should invest billions in Africa to convince Africans that they have viable economic opportunities at home. Instead, they estimate that more than 1 million Africans now crowd Libya's cities, creating a jarring subculture in a Muslim country of fewer than 6 million. "Geography has not been kind to us," says Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem. "We're squeezed between the very poor and the very rich. The very rich show their wealth on television, so the very poor look at it and want to get there. To them, it looks like heaven on earth."