Libya War Traps Poor Immigrants at Tripoli’s Edge
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.
For dinner on Monday night two men killed a scrawny, half-plucked chicken by dunking it in water boiled on a garbage fire, then hacked it apart with a dull knife and cooked it over an open fire. Some residents of the camp are as young as Essem Ighalo, 9 days old, who arrived on his second day of life and has yet to see a doctor. Many refugees said they had seen deaths from hunger and disease every night.
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 three weeks 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 cellphone 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 work in its oil economy.
Their flight has emptied the streets of thousands of day laborers 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.