England's White Dragon

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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

War Traps Immigrants at Tripoli’s Edge Libyan

As wealthier nations send boats and planes to rescue their
citizens from the violence in Libya, a new refugee crisis is taking shape on
the outskirts of Tripoli, where thousands of migrant workers from sub-Saharan
Africa have been trapped with scant food and water, no international aid and
little hope of escape

The migrants  many of
them illegal immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria who have long constituted an
impoverished underclass in Libya live amid piles of garbage, sleep in makeshift
tents of blankets strung from fences and trees, and breathe fumes from a trench
of excrement dividing their camp from the parking lot of Tripoli’s airport.

The airport refugees, along with tens of thousands of other
African migrants lucky enough to make it across the border to Tunisia, are the
most desperate contingent of a vast exodus that has already sent almost 200,000
foreigners fleeing the country since the outbreak of the popular revolt against
Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi nearly a month ago.

Dark-skinned Africans say the Libyan war has caught them in
a vise. The heavily armed police and militia forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi
who guard checkpoints along the roads around the capital rob them of their
money, possessions and cell phone chips, the migrants say. And the Libyans who
oppose Colonel Qaddafi lash out at the African migrants because they look like
the dark-skinned mercenaries many here say the Libyan leader has recruited to
crush the uprising.

“Qaddafi has brought African soldiers to kill some of them,
so if they see black people they beat them,” said Samson Adda, 31, who said
residents of Zawiyah, a rebellious city, had beaten him so badly that he could
no longer walk.

Sub-Saharan Africans make up a vast majority of the
estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants among Libya’s population of 6.5
million, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many were
desperately poor people made even more so by investments of up to $1,000 each
to pay smugglers to bring them across Libya’s southern border for a chance at
better works in its oil economy.

Their flight has emptied the streets of thousands of day labourers
who played a crucial, if largely unheralded, role in sustaining Libya’s
economy. Their absence has played a role in halting construction projects that
had been rising across the skyline.

They are trapped in part because most lack passports or
other documents necessary to board a plane or cross the border. Few can afford
a plane ticket.

They say they are afraid to leave the airport or try their
luck on the roads to the border for fear of assaults by Libyan citizens or at
militia checkpoints.

They complain bitterly of betrayal by their home
governments, which have failed to help evacuate them even as Egyptian,
Bangladeshi and Chinese migrant workers who crowded the airport a week ago have
found a way out.

And international aid workers, who have raced to minister to
the hundreds of thousands camped on the borders, say the migrants trapped at
the airport remain beyond their reach. The Libyan government’s tight security
and the threat of violence on the streets of Tripoli have apparently prevented
any international aid groups from reaching the makeshift camps.

“We are operating out of Benghazi,” said Jean-Philippe
Chauzy of the International Organization for Migration, referring to the
eastern Libyan city that is the headquarters of the rebellion. “But
unfortunately because of the conditions we can’t help them out of Tripoli.”

The outbreak of violence in Tripoli around Feb. 20 sent
migrants of all kinds fleeing for the airport. Until recently, desperate hordes
of all nationalities were sleeping packed together on the floors of the
terminals or in the fields and parking lots outside. Guards with whips and
clubs beat them back to clear the entrance.

Despite Colonel Qaddafi’s brotherly pan-African rhetoric,
racial xenophobia is common here. Many Libyans, ethnically Arab, look down on
Chinese, Bangladeshis and darker-skinned Africans, in that order. Many African
refugees here and in the camps on the Tunisian border say Libyans often
addressed them as “abd,” or slave

But many said it was the presence of mercenaries from other
African countries that made the situation unbearable. “Qaddafi brought the
mercenaries who are black, so the people are chasing us,” one 30-year-old
Nigerian man who didn’t want to be named told the London Times

Perhaps as many as 100,000 refugees, most of them
sub-Saharan Africans, have made it to the Tunisian camps, where groups like the
Red Crescent, the Muslim counterpart to the Red Cross, care for the sick. The
United States has lent planes to fly Egyptian refugees home from Tunisia.

But the crowds left at the airport, now almost exclusively
African, have no such support. Some have been there for two weeks or more.

Several said that someone perhaps with a local charity,
perhaps with the Libyan government had given them each a biscuit. On Monday
refugees holding bottles lined up at the back of a tanker truck dispensing

But an exploitative economy has also sprung up. A group of
burly, well-dressed men stood by a sport utility vehicle in the parking lot
holding thick stacks of dollars, euros and Libyan dinars and offering to change
money at usurious rates.

Many of the workers had been paid in foreign currency but
need to change it to buy a Coke, a candy bar, or perhaps an emaciated chicken
from the vendors who have turned up to profit from the camps. Several refugees
said a live chicken cost about $8 in the camp, more than four times what it
might have cost before the crisis.

But many said the worst indignity was being robbed of their
few possessions either by soldiers with machine guns or by young civilians
carrying knives.

“The most painful thing is this: A lot of people buy things,
for more than two years they are gathering their own money to keep their own
things that they will take to Nigeria,” the Nigerian man said. “But the little
things that you have like tele, plasma, clothes, shoes, bags, and all your assets
they take everything.”

Another man added: “Just imagine: We are poor people, and
they are robbing us. They are taking our dinars, our euros, our pounds. They are
taking our mobile phones and SIM cards.” (Can’t be that poor having a cell
phones, plasma TV’s Nike sports goods?)

The loss of the cell phones the Libyan government is
confiscating them apparently to prevent the circulation of cell phone pictures
of the unrest means that many of the refugees have been unable to tell their families
they are alive, several said.

Many said that after waiting days for people from their
embassies to help arrange their travel papers, they had given up hope in their
home countries.

“We are somebody and we are from somewhere,” said Abru
Razak, 35, a Nigerian with two daughters, 2 and 5, at the airport. “Even when
we get into the airport they are beating us and pushing us. We are dying. Tell
the United Nations they should get us away from here  to anywhere, just to save our lives are the
Yanks coming along with the British asks one man they will want the oil and
then come?

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