Sub-Saharan African workers targeted in Libyan unrest

Ras Ajdir, Tunisia – On the edge of the temporary tent camp 10 kilometres from Tunisia’s border with Libya, Augustine Emianah stands in line, waiting to make a free phone call to his parents in Ghana.

The 30-year-old plasterer had left his hometown Accra in 2010, snaking across Burkina Faso and Niger by bush taxi, minibus and on foot to reach Libya, searching for work.

‘It wasn’t an easy journey,’ he says. ‘But I thought it would be worth it. I planned to stay in Libya for several years and earn enough money to send to family back home.’

Like most of the 1,000 Ghanaians who have fled to safety in eastern Tunisia, Emianah didn’t expect to leave Libya so soon. But less than a year after his arrival in Libya, he has been driven out by continuing unrest that has exacerbated racism towards migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa.

When he left his rented apartment, he packed his mobile phone, CD player, radio and wallet into his holdall. By the time he crossed the border, strung out between olive groves, scrubland and low-slung white mosques, all he had were the clothes he was carrying.

‘When we reached the border, the security guards took everything,’ he says.

Other West Africans at the camp have similar stories. Leaning against the eucalyptus trees that thrive on the edge of this scrubby patch of hamada, between date palms, aloe vera plants and growing mounds of trash, they share memories of what they have lost.

They make up a small representation of Libya’s migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNHCR, about 100,000 were working legally or illegally in Libya until recently.

But Human Rights Watch says that evacuation efforts have not adequately included the plight of African workers.

‘Sub-Saharan African workers are in dire need of evacuation because of the threats they face in Libya,’ said Peter Bouckaert, the group’s Emergencies Director. He said they are particularly vulnerable amid reports that Moamer Gaddafi flew in black mercenaries to attack anti-government protesters.

‘We experienced racism from both sides,’ says Emianah. ‘The government does not like us because we are black and the others are afraid of us because we are black. We had no choice but to leave.’

For Kwame Apeah, life as a migrant worker in Libya was good until about two years ago.

‘For a while after I arrived, things were great. I had steady work, something I rarely had in Ghana, and I’d made Libyan friends,’ he said.

‘But then the police started cracking down on black workers in Tripoli. They didn’t want to see us, and accused us of trying to reach Italy. Some friends were rounded up and thrown in jail. Another friend was shot in the arm,’ he added.

Another refugee migrant worker, Franco Apoko, 27, adds, ‘I’m going to Ghana with empty hands. I started to worry about what my family would think, and then I realised that’s not important. I didn’t save any money while I was there, but I saved my life.’

Thousands of African migrants still have no idea if they will be able to leave Libya.

‘There are hundreds of thousands of African workers in Libya, and very few have shown up at the borders,’ UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Al Jazeera.

In Benghazi, a separate camp for displaced sub-Saharan Africans has been established for at least 1,200 migrant workers, including those from Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Sudan.

On the other side of the camp, 32-year-old Charles Chuka, from Nigeria, is singing: ‘Oh, my home, my home, When can I see back home?’

A group of Bangladeshi migrant workers looks on quietly from their place in the food line. Although the 200-strong Nigerian group pales in comparison to the 10,000 Bangladeshis awaiting evacuation, the Nigerians’ presence is palpable.

They staged a protest at the camp Saturday, appealing for assistance from the Nigerian government in returning home.

‘We spent years in Libya but it was in vain because when we reached the border, security forces took our belongings and our savings,’ Chuka says.

‘We’ve been here for 12 days but nobody’s talking about us. Most of the Egyptians have now gone. What will happen to us?’ he asked.

‘Some people are trying to head into Tunisia, they’re looking for a way to get to Europe. We don’t need to go to Europe, we just want to go to Nigeria. We don’t want our record to be spoiled, like in so many other countries. We have so much pain in our minds.’

And if Libya finds peace? ‘I wouldn’t go back,’ he says. ‘I went to Libya hoping to earn a few thousand dollars. But I wouldn’t go back if they paid me a million.’

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