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West African Migrant Workers Flee Libya Fighting

  • Anne Look

African migrants sit aboard a boat after being rescued after fleeing Libya by Tunisian coastguard and sailors off the Tunisian coast, June 5, 2011

African migrants sit aboard a boat after being rescued after fleeing Libya by Tunisian coastguard and sailors off the Tunisian coast, June 5, 2011

West African migrant workers are fleeing the conflict in Libya by the thousands, many arriving in northern Niger with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Fighting between Libyan rebels and government forces kicked off in March. Since then, between 80,000 and 100,000 migrant workers have passed through Agadez in the deserts of northern Niger.

Hundreds from Niger and other African countries arrive in army convoys from Dirkou, a small oasis about two days' drive northeast.

In Dirkou, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Red Cross have set up an emergency camp for migrants who do not have money to buy food or continue their journeys home.

IOM spokesman and camp manager, Ismaila Mahamane, says since this center opened, it has taken care of thousands of migrants from Niger and elsewhere. He says the IOM takes care of transport and food for the migrants and the Red Cross provides shelter.

For many migrants, the meal they receive at the Dirkou camp is their first in days. They could wait as long as two weeks for the next army convoy to Agadez.

It took Seydou Abdou, a worker from Niger, 45 days to get to Agadez from Misrata in northwestern Libya. All he has now are the pair of pants and shirt he is wearing.

Abdou says there are no roads. There are rebels on one side and government forces on the other and they are fighting and you are in your bedroom he adds. He says you do not know what will happen if you go out.

The IOM says almost 200,000 West African workers have returned from Libya, more than half of them by crossing the borders into Niger and Chad.

There are no solid figures on the total number of sub-Saharan Africans working in Libya, but estimates ranged from one to 1.5 million before the conflict. They often work in Libya's oil, agriculture or construction sectors.

Sogni Zacharia, a migrant worker from Burkina Faso and now in Niger, says the situation is not good in Libya. He says there is war and they beat up people. He says they do not pay you when you work. He says they tell you to leave and they will not pay you because you are an African.

Humanitarian workers are keeping a close eye on the eastern Sahel region as tens of thousands of migrant workers return home from Libya.

Most are fleeing to Niger and Chad where families are still struggling to recover from severe food shortages that threatened ten million people just last year.

Not only do households now have more mouths to feed, but relief workers say they have also lost much-needed remittance money. Returning migrants have little hope of finding work thanks to high rates of unemployment.