Black African Migrants Face Brutal Choices in Libya

Wednesday, March 9, 2011
By ugandansabroad

By Rebecca Harshbarger

Libya’s black African migrants are in crisis, with few able to escape the country’s guarded-borders, while still facing an opposition that suspects they are Qaddafhi-recruited mercenaries, according to reporting by the Black Star News.  On the outskirts of Tripoli, thousands of sub-saharan African migrants have fled to a makeshift camp outside of the airport in Tripoli.  The New York Times reported that the workers have hung blankets from fences and trees, are living among garbage, and are exposed to a trench of excrement between the airport and the camp.

Abdala (center), is a 42-year-old Sudanese electrician trying to go home. UNHCR.

About 1.5 million black African migrants work in Libya, frequently in construction and sanitation as laborers.  Many are from Ghana and Nigeria, working abroad to create better lives for their families back home.

Since the crisis began three weeks ago, workers have died from hunger and disease in the airport’s vicinity.  Women in the camp reported being unable to bathe since they arrived, others have tried to bathe in the bushes.  Water is very difficult to acccess.  Soldiers rob their few possessions with machine guns, and civilians attack them with knives, taking their cell phones and even their sim cards.  Children live in the camps as well, including babies that are only a few days old.

Libyan troops have been rounding up black African migrants in their homes throughout the country, and forcing them to fight anti-Qaddafi rebels, according to reporting by Reuters.  Soldiers beat them, robbed them of their documents and cash, detained them, and then asked them to take up arms for the state, in exchange for 250 Libyan dinars.  Some immigrants told Reuters they had been forced to bury their own babies in the desert as they trekked to Tunisia.

“Both the Libyan government and opposition forces need to allow unhindered access for aid organizations to assist civilians,” said Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch’s refugee program director.  ”We are deeply concerned that pro-government forces may be denying people their right to flee the fighting and leave the country.”

Abru Razak, a 35-year-old Nigerian that the New York Times interviewed, managed to actually enter the airport itself, with his 2 and 5-year-old daughters.  But even in the building, he says the migrants are being brutally beaten.

At the checkpoints on Libya’s borders, Qaddafi’s police and militia forces rob of them their few money and few possessions.  But in the country, ordinary Libyans attack them, believing they are the same as the sub-Saharan mercenaries Qaddafi has recruited.

“If they see black people they beat them,” said Samson Adda, 31, in an interview with the New York Times.  He has beaten so badly he can barely walk.

Many of the migrants made tremendous sacrifices to come to Libya in the first place, paying smugglers to bring them across the border so they can find jobs.

The exodus of the migrants to the makeshift camp near the airport has halted Libya’s construction projects, as they had played a signficant role in the North African country’s economy.

Few can afford plane tickets, and most lack passports or the other documents needed to leave.

Egypt, Bangladesh and China largely evacuated their own nationals more than a week ago.  Ghana has evacuated almost 700 of its citizens, but about 10,000 Ghanaians are believed to live in Libya.  About 1,000 Ghanaians are waiting near the Libya-Egyptian border, according to reporting by the Christian Science Monitor.  The Nigerian government hopes to evacuate about 2,000 nationals from Libya, but as many as 50,000 Nigerians had been working there.  Mali evacuated about 122 factory workers, and about 1,500 of Niger’s expats have managed to leave.

The BBC reported in late February of 150 Kenyans, Ugandans, Tanzanians, Rwandans, and Zimbabweans who were evacuated from Libya to Nairobi.  At first, many had tried to escape Tripoli through Misrata, a coastal town to the east, but were turned away at the border because of their skin color.  ”They think people who have been hired to kill Libyans mostly are using blacks,” said Aggrey Simiyu in an interview with BBC News, a Kenyan civil engineer.

One official from the Ugandan mission in Libya almost broke down in tears when talking to the BBC News.  ”I can assure you that even if you had $10,000, you could not get a flight to get out of Tripoli,” she said.  She would not have been able to leave if the Kenyan government had not evacuated them.

The Libyan government’s security forces have made it extremely difficult for international aid organizations to reach the black African migrants.  Many of the groups have been forced to operate from opposition-controlled areas in eastern Libya, and cannot access Tripoli.

Racism has long been a huge problem in Libyan society, and many ordinary Libyans refer to black Africans as “abd,” which means slave.

About 100,000 refugees, many black, have managed to flee to Tunisia’s camps, where the Red Crescent has provided some support.  The U.N. expects about 100,000 sub-saharan Africans to flee Libya into Niger.

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