In Libya, fleeing migrants are mistaken for Qadhafi’s mercenaries

Benghazi–As battles rage on in Libyan cities between rebel forces and armed brigades loyal to Libya’s unpopular leader, Muammar Qadhafi, sub-Saharan Africans are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end of a popular campaign of racial violence. In the wake of numerous reports that Qadhafi has hired mercenaries from  other African countries to suppress the Libyan uprising, many workers who have lived in Libya for years are being mistaken for hired guns of the crumbling regime. As a result, some of Libya’s most vulnerable immigrants are running for their lives, trying to escape an increasingly dangerous situation. But for many, obtaining a safe exit from Libya is proving a challenging feat.

“Come see the black working class,” yells Asante Jonny, a Ghanaian migrant worker who has been stuck at the Egypt-Libya border for four days. He sits with two friends on a curb, near the Egyptian customs building, munching on a dry piece of bread. The modest snack, given to him by a Libyan volunteer on a road near the border crossing, is all he has eaten in 24 hours. His friends have consumed even less. “I can’t talk right now, I’m too hungry,” says a teenage boy, wrapped in a thick blanket to shield himself from the cold wind.

Jonny, 40, has worked in Benghazi for the past two years as a mason for a Libyan construction company. Since the uprising began, he has been trying to return to his native Ghana where his wife and two children live. Like many fleeing migrants, Jonny got trapped at the border: he can’t return to Libya but Egyptian authorities insist that before he crosses into Egypt, the Ghanaian embassy in Cairo must commit to his repatriation. As a result, Jonny, like thousands of others, has been camping out in front of the Egyptian customs office, unsure when he will be able to safely return home.

“A day here is like hell,” he says. “We sleep on the cold asphalt and many people don’t have blankets to cover themselves.” The small border crossing on the edge of the desert has no facilities to feed and shelter crowds of this size. Food and medicines are scarce, and even those with money have nowhere to purchase additional supplies. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has warned that the situation at Libya’s border crossings with both Tunisia and Egypt is turning into a humanitarian crisis.

Like other oil-rich Arab states, Libya relies heavily on migrant workers–from Africa and Asia–who constitute most of the country’s unskilled labor force. Many arrived in Libya during the last 20 years to work for low wages in the oil, construction and service sectors. An estimated 1.5 million sub-Saharan African migrant workers were living in Libya when the uprising started.

Since then, many migrants have been forced to leave due to Libya’s growing unrest and insecurity. Thousands flocked to Libya’s eastern and western borders in a desperate attempt to reach neighboring countries. Others go to Benghazi’s Jilyana Port every day with the hope that ships coming from countries around the Mediterranean will transport them to safer shores. While tens of thousands of workers have been able to return home via the sea, many sub-Saharan Africans and South Asians remain. For most of these trapped refugees, their governments have done little to help them.

For Libya’s black African migrants, concerns about political violence and economic instability are compounded by fears of being targeted as rumors abound regarding Qadhafi’s mercenaries. For many, leaving by sea has been difficult as European countries, fearing an influx of poor African migrants, remain determined to keep them off their soil.

“Life in Benghazi now is very dangerous for blacks,” says Jonny, who fled after Qadhafi’s forces were routed by defectors from a local security brigade and pro-democracy protesters, who took full control of the city. “Walking around town can get you killed. I had to run for my life after my friend from Cameroon was killed because his dreadlocks were seen as suspicious.”

Addo Alexmann, 28, is another Ghanaian construction worker who left Benghazi just days after the violence began. He was lucky to have his Libyan landlord drive him to Benghazi’s waterfront to help him find safe passage to the Egyptian border. Like many refugees, he complains that his country’s embassy has done little to help him.

Rights advocates have warned that poor countries may be unable to provide sufficient support to their expatriate populations and have called on European countries to help evacuate vulnerable migrants to safety. They have also criticized the African Union–which receives generous funding from Qadhafi’s petrodollar coffers–for its silence on the plight of black Africans in Libya.

Meanwhile, reports that African mercenaries lie behind much of the violence in Libya have been met with skepticism by human rights monitors, who say such claims were rashly disseminated by local residents and carelessly peddled by the foreign press. “This is a prime example of lazy, irresponsible journalism on the part of the mainstream media who publish rumors as truth,” said Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.

Qadhafi has long used his oil money to buy political influence in Africa. He has been involved in training and financing armed rebel groups and repressive governments across the continent. It is indeed possible that he drew on some of these groups to organize the ongoing crackdown against Libya’s growing pro-democracy movement. But, as it stands, claims that Qadhafi is deploying substantial numbers of foreign mercenaries have yet to be proven.

“These claims need to be investigated,” says Bouckaert. “So far, many rumors about African fighters have been unsubstantiated.”  According to Bouckaert, most of the incidents that Human Rights Watch has investigated involving the detention of suspected mercenaries appear baseless. In many cases, those detained have turned out to be poor migrants who have lived and worked in Libya for years.

Bouckaert is careful to distinguish between the populist reaction to suspected mercenaries–which has sometimes been quite ruthless–and the efforts of the fledgling authorities in rebel-held Benghazi. The latter have been more vigilant about safeguarding the rights of detained suspects and are keen to maintain a dialogue with groups like Human Rights Watch.   

“These people are human beings with the same rights as anyone else,” says Galal al-Jallal, a Libyan businessman-turned-revolutionary who serves as a local media liaison for the foreign press. He is adamant that alleged mercenaries must be protected from any attempts at popular retribution. “If we don’t respect their rights, then we are no better than Qadhafi’s regime, which violated Libyans’ rights.”

Back at the border, some African migrants, even as they flee for their lives, express sympathy for Libya’s courageous pro-democracy protesters in their fight against a brutal dictator. Asked what he thinks of the Libyan revolution, Jonny answers: “Everybody likes freedom. Democracy is the best rule in our world. In Libya, I saw security forces use guns against unarmed protesters. That is not good. If the government really brought mercenaries to kill civilians, that is wrong and against human rights. Everyone must have freedom.”

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