Libya: Hard to Stay in Country, Difficult to Return
By Rebecca Murray, 2 March 2012
Tripoli — At the battered terminal of Tripoli's tiny Mitiga airport, over
150 young men and women jostle to be repatriated home to Nigeria on Libya's
Buraq airlines. This journey to Lagos is one of hundreds the International
Organisation for Migration (IOM) has facilitated since the start of the
uprising against Gaddafi's regime over a year ago.
IOM estimates that one million migrant workers were in Libya sending
remittances home before the crisis, a heavy footprint for a Libyan
population of under seven million.
Early on in the uprising, workers from Asia, the Middle East, and
neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt fled across Libya's borders. But Somali and
Eritrean political refugees continued to arrive in Tripoli throughout the
war; braving the harrowing journey north through Sudan.
IOM's current flights are now filled with West Africans who traversed Niger
and Chad to Libya seeking a better economic future, but whose ultimate
hardships have forced them to return.
At Mitiga, many Nigerians don the brand new green sports jackets and shoes
given to them by IOM, with their meagre possessions stuffed into plastic
suitcases and shopping bags.
"The major problem is citizenship verification and temporary travel
documentation," explains Jeremy Haslam, IOM's mission chief in Libya. "If
they don't have their documents - which I can say is (true for) over 90
percent - the first thing we have to do, before we can even think about
repatriation, is confirm where they are from."
While a few Nigerians look relieved to return home and laugh with comrades,
the majority are in despair. After a costly and arduous car trip with
smugglers over the desert into Libya, they have spent most days searching
for piecemeal day labour, and living in perpetual fear of being harassed,
robbed and detained by the Libyan militias policing the streets. They will
now return to families - often indebted to smugglers - empty-handed.
"When I got to Tripoli I worked at a car wash and got up to 50 Libyan Dinars
(40 dollars) a day," says Dennis, a soft-spoken 24-year old. "When the war
came however, it was hell. I lost my passport and money to the militia. They
arrested me for 20 days and beat me up. During the war the militias were
always stopping me, so I stayed indoors."
Migrants interviewed by IPS often had their passports confiscated or lost
early on, and none possessed entry visas. Libya is not a destination country
for most, but a stepping-stone to Europe. While stigma towards Sub-Saharan
migrants may have lessened since the war - when Muammar Gaddafi employed
black mercenaries to fight against the rebels - racism is still pervasive,
Many Nigerians at the airport terminal know each other. Each forked out
around 1,200 dollars for a dangerous boat ride to Europe late last year,
only to be apprehended by Libyan authorities while at sea and jailed in
Tripoli's Ain Zara prison for the past three months.
One among them is Shauna, a 38 year-old mother to daughters Angel, 4, and
Blessed, 1. She was heavily pregnant when her husband reached Italy by
himself at the start of Libya's conflict. She gave birth to Blessed in an
apartment in Tripoli, and then paid for a boat ride.
She was arrested with both daughters, and all three spent time in prison. "I
don't have any money," Shauna says, opening her fake leather handbag full of
torn, waterlogged documents and children's drawings. "What am I to do?" The
U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that roughly 50,000 people attempted
to cross the Mediterranean by boat in 2011, and close to 2,000 drowned.
Rumours persist that Gaddafi encouraged the crossings to Europe in
retribution over NATO strikes. However, the numbers are small in the context
of last year's overall migration from Libya; the largest in the region since
World War II.
"It's a very complicated picture," says IOM's Haslam. "Migrants may have
been moved from a basement of a house where they were protected for some
time, and then whoever was protecting them couldn't handle it any longer.
They pass them to the next entity, person, group, militia - and they are
bouncing all over the place. They may have been working in forced labour to
earn their keep.
"Maybe some opportunistic types have seen they can actually trade migrants,"
says Haslam. "It gets into the whole debt-bondage deal. Migrants are being
sold on now for 260 - 800 LD (208 - 642 dollars) per person. You come across
enough cases to see a trend. We saw a discount on one particular day of
21,000 LD (16,875 dollars) for 78 people - that's a knocked-down price for
West Africans, with women and children among them."
Economic and political refugees now face another new threat. Libya's
minister for labour, Mustafa Ali Rugibani, has declared a Mar. 4 expulsion
deadline for irregular workers. Despite the lack of a transparent system to
process people in place, he says, "if they are not legalised they will be
"I hope they won't expel people who should not be expelled, such as asylum
seekers and refugees, or people in need of international protection," says
Emmanuel Gignac, UNHCR's mission head in Libya.
On a sodden, winter day at a Tripoli railway yard that a Chinese company was
building before the war, hundreds of refugees from Somalia and to a lesser
extent, Eritrea, live in ramshackle housing. The government-owned property
is now 'managed' by a local militia, replete with 4Ã-4 trucks patrolling
with anti-aircraft guns, and a detention cell.
This militia is entrepreneurial - charging refugees 24 dollars each per
month to stay, and assigning them laminate ID cards. They offer 'protection'
and paid daily labour - as well as harassment, the residents claim.
Seventeen-year-old Ayan is originally from the war-torn Ogaden region in
southeast Ethiopia, but had been living in Mogadishu. It took her seven
months to reach Libya, and after some boys accidentally hit her during an
overcrowded car ride through the desert, she developed physical pain that
won't go away. Her friend, Fawza, 20, is also from Mogadishu. "In Somalia,
there is forced marriage and no education. Every day people are dying from
the war," she says.
All the residents interviewed by IPS say they want to go to Europe, despite
the fact that 15 recently washed-up bodies from a shipwreck were Somalis
from their camp.
"I am going to Italy, I have many friends there," exclaims Theodras from
Eritrea, who is able to find work three days a week loading trucks. When
asked about the labour ministry's threat of expulsion, he replies: "Who
cares - we will get to where we are going."
Meanwhile, across Tripoli in an Italian-era Catholic church a festive crowd
gathers in glittering gowns and headdresses. This is a Nigerian wedding,
replete with traditional musicians, food, and a chance for dancing, gossip
and laughter. On this rare morning, the tight-knit migrant community can
forget their daily hardships, at least for an hour.
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Received on Fri Mar 02 2012 - 07:52:14 EST