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September 04, 2011

African Migrants in Libya Live in Fear

by Scott Bobb

Human rights organizations say tens of thousands of African migrants in Libya have been displaced from their homes and jobs by months of fighting between forces loyal to former leader Moammar Gadhafi and the transitional authority that opposes him. Many are living in fear under difficult conditions in makeshift camps.

Tensions are running high at Sidi Blal port where about 1,000 workers from sub-Saharan Africa have taken refuge. Although the fighting in this part of Libya has largely ended, the migrants say they are being threatened by unknown gunmen.

Edmont Okoror, from Edo State, Nigeria, had been washing cars for the past six years until he says gunmen raided his home near Tripoli.

“Our belongings, they took them from us, our money, even our phones,” said Okoror.

Stranded migrants

An estimated 1 million migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were living in Libya before the uprising that ousted long-time leader Moammar Gadhafi. Most of them fled during the five months of fighting, but relief agencies estimate about 100,000 remain.

Aminu Zimbo, from Boku, northern Ghana, said black foreigners seem to be especially targeted by anti-Gadhafi forces. He is not sure why.

“They just came. They are shooting guns. We run. Our passports were in the room. We just escaped. Because they kill lots of Ghanaians there. They kill all blacks. That is why we decided to run,” said Zimbo.

Targeted by rebel forces

Anti-Gadhafi forces have captured hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans who, they say, were caught fighting alongside pro-Gadhafi forces.

Many of these prisoners said they had been offered Libyan citizenship or money to fight for Gadhafi. Others said they had been in prison and were forced to join his side.

But many Libyans see them as mercenaries who participated in the killing of innocent civilians and as a result, black foreigners are now viewed with suspicion.

In addition, some Libyans resent Gadhafi's policy of embracing sub-Saharan countries. He invited their citizens to work in Libya and over the years donated billions of dollars to African governments.

Gadhafi said he wanted to help his brothers and sisters on the continent. But many Libyans believe the main reason was to fulfill his ambition to become the leader of a Pan-African union.

Kris Wagemans works for the Doctors Without Borders relief group that is providing water, food and medical care at this camp. He said the people here come from different backgrounds and experiences, but all are stressed by two main challenges.

“I think they are very worried about security at one part [on the one hand]; second part, living conditions. If you go around the camp you see how they live. For sure this is a main issue,” said Wagemans.

Nigerian ambassador met with hostility

The Nigerian ambassador paid a visit to the camp on Saturday and offered to return his citizens to Nigeria. He was greeted with open hostility by his countrymen. His guards fired into the ground as the crowd shouted him out of the camp.

Nigerian truck driver Fred Binosa said this is because going home is not an option. He said many workers borrowed money to travel here and if they returned home empty-handed they would be at risk. He said the lack of job opportunities in Nigeria is a major factor.

“Why should we go to Nigeria to be suffering the life of before? We just want work, a place where we can rest. Please we are begging you
to help us,” said Binosa.

Some of the migrants in this camp say they would return to their homes in Libya if there is security. But for now, there is nothing to do but wait and hope for better times, or passage to a new life, again.