Thousands of sub-Saharan Africans are either stranded or imprisoned in Libya in the wake of the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi — and they haven’t been having an easy time. Many have been detained and abused, accused of being mercenaries in Gadhafi’s army.
On a recent day at the military airport in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, a Libyan fighter lines up 115 Nigerians to be deported.
More than ready to leave, the women and men gather their meager belongings.
“I came here to make money,” says 32-year-old Fred Igbinosa. “I spent three years here now, but I see that everything has changed, so I have to go back to my country, because the crisis is too much for me. I don’t want to die young.”
Like many sub-Saharan Africans, Igbinosa traveled to Libya illegally, working before the war in one of the many foreign companies located in the country.
During the war, things took a turn for the worse. A rebel group captured Igbinosa and imprisoned him as a suspected mercenary in Gadhafi’s forces
“They tied our hands behind our backs, beat us up and locked us in jail,” Igbinosa recalls. “I told them I was not a fighter, but they could not believe us. They treat us so badly there, so many people even died inside the prison there.”
Gadhafi did pay or conscript sub-Saharan Africans to fight for him. But many others in Libya are simply workers who were caught up in events. Igbinosa says he was only just released from jail, but there are still thousands like him imprisoned in makeshift detention centers.
Black women in particular are continuing to face harassment. All of the women NPR spoke to said they had been propositioned or called a prostitute, and they all know women who were raped.
Choma Imbebusi says she came to Libya to find work six months ago but instead lived in fear.
“It’s a hardcore time. We stayed indoor for almost two months. There was no water, they raped people,” Imbebusi says. “So many bad experiences. I know one woman, she was raped mercilessly, they took her money, it’s so obviously bad.”
Jeremy Haslam is the International Organization for Migration’s mission chief in Libya.
“Without question, there is a perception that sub-Saharan Africans are some way or form associated with the previous regime and, indeed, potentially they could be mercenaries. And unfortunately, all sub-Saharans are branded with that same stigma. So that’s one of the root causes of their persecution,” he says.
Haslam says the IOM has evacuated hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, but the situation is still dire for the many who remain.
“The problem is now, as things tail off in what is perceived to be the end of the humanitarian crisis, is that some of these needs are being neglected,” he says.
“In Tripoli, for example,” Haslam says, “we have no safe and secure transit facility from which to process migrants, to take them out of harm’s way, because there are some very vulnerable cases, but there are also incidents of arbitrary arrest and abduction.”
No Easy Way Out
Salah Abu Bakr has a master’s degree in accountancy from his native Somalia. But because of the civil war there and a lack of opportunities, he came to Libya, hoping to catch a boat to Europe. He shows visitors around the makeshift camp in Tripoli where he and other Africans have been living.
“We don’t have beds and we don’t have enough mattresses,” he says, walking down a hall filled with water and garbage.
The conditions are dirty and difficult, but there is regular medical attention from Doctors Without Borders, regular food from an aid group called Islamic Relief and it’s protected from the violence outside.
But they won’t be there much longer.
“We were told that the camp will be closed. Clearly, we don’t know what is happening,” Abu Bakr says.
The local authorities say that the Chinese company that owns the compound will be coming back. So they have been moving people out, in some cases offering them jobs as sanitation workers.
But others like Abu Bakr say if they can’t get to Europe, they want to go home. The problem is that most don’t have documents, and it’s not clear how they can be repatriated. So they are stuck in limbo, aid workers say.