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Migrants in Limbo as Libyan Revolution Reaches Endgame

Michelle Chen

An African migrant (R) tries to jump the queue as people disembark from the Red Star, chartered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and carrying 800 migrants and civilian casualties from the besieged Libyan city Misrata, upon arrival in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on May 5, 2011.

As the Libyan uprising reaches its climax, gun battles flare, bodies pile up in hospitals, and the capital is paralyzed in fear. And somewhere in the revolutionary endgame, outsiders who have no part in either side of the upheaval find their lives hanging in the balance. Masses of migrant workers, part of a stream of cheap labor that poured in from Asia and Africa during Libya’s boom years, helped build Gaddafi’s oil empire, witnessed its rapid demise and could end up helping rebuild the country from ruins.

Following the rebels’ entry into the capital, the International Organization for Migration has been working to ferry out migrants stranded in Tripoli, though it reported being stalled for a few days due to security concerns. The IOM reported Friday it had picked up a group that included Egyptians, Filipinos, Canadians, Algerians, Moroccans and an Italian.” But many more migrants remain besieged, and the IOM has sent another boat to retrieve more workers, including possibly those living on the outskirts of Tripoli, where many of the workers from sub-Saharan Africa are concentrated.

Since the fighting broke out in March, Voice of America reports, many West Africa migrants have escaped in tatters to northern Niger, some going without food for days. At an aid camp, impoverished refugees still faced insecurity at every turn: virtually no decent job prospects in their home countries, Niger and Chad withered by a food crisis, and desperately needed remittances cut off by poltiical chaos:

Sogni Zacharia, a migrant worker from Burkina Faso and now in Niger, says the situation is not good in Libya. He says there is war and they beat up people. He says they do not pay you when you work. He says they tell you to leave and they will not pay you because you are an African.

The past several months have seen a desperate exodus of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, out of a huge initial population of about 2.5 million. Back in March, thousands were thronging to Benghazi and to the Libya-Egyptian border to escape the violence. But aid workers observed that a steep drop in the flow of refugees was as troubling as the initial influx, according to the AP:

There has been a marked drop in the number of migrant workers coming across the border, from a peak of 20,000 several days ago to between 1,400 and 1,800, the U.N. said. On Saturday, only 500 had crossed into Tunisia by midday, said a U.N. official at the border.

People fleeing for Tunisia said they had to pass through dozens of checkpoints on the way from Tripoli to the border. All said they had been robbed by Gadhafi’s security forces….

Those who crossed into Tunisia in the last two days have reported seeing thousands of fellow migrant workers on the Libyan side, but it was unclear why they were not approaching the border. The U.N. refugee agency said it worries that thousands of people trying to cross over are being held back by Libyan authorities.

At one refugee camp in Tunisia earlier this year, the desperate, cramped conditions showed that Libya’s economic hierarchy—fueled by imported workers in construction, domestic help and other sectors—remained somewhat intact even in times of upheaval:

Many of the Bangladeshis and Africans, in particular, remain far down the pecking order of nations that have the resources to evacuate their citizens, and some were too scared to venture out.

U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Saturday the agency’s team in Benghazi reported that most foreigners who sought help had been evacuated. Her agency had set up a camp at Benghazi for some 8,000 foreigners awaiting evacuation, most of them Bangladeshi, Indian and Sudanese migrants.

Many of the Africans who have fled say they are terrified of being mistaken for mercenaries who the opposition says were hired by Gadhafi’s regime.

Though Libya has history of exploiting and abusing African migrants, the civil war amplified the racism; there were reports of blacks being targeted by those who suspected they were hired guns for the regime.

So far, the plight of migrants has understandably not been the focus of the world’s attention — not when the media sought to glorify the messy, fractious uprising as a narrative extension the Arab Spring, and not when NATO and the corporate interests are busy eyeing the oil profits that await them in the aftermath of the humanitarian” bombing campaign. And migrants’ rights probably haven’t been high on the list of priorities for the Transitional National Council as it tries to map out a new political system. But as we’ve reported before, migrants have always been the hidden lifeblood of Libya’s economy, and will be crucial to the rebuilding effort once the conflict ends.

UN official Sybella Wilkes gave NPR an eerily optimistic outlook for the post-Gaddafi economy:

Those that have stayed have really stayed through the bitterest, most difficult period. And of course they probably have the most to lose by leaving because I think they see that there’s potentially a lot of opportunity when the conflict’s over.

But the old regime offered these migrants opportunity” as well. In the new Libya, will workers who formed the underclass of a dictatorship finally achieve dignity in the emergent democracy? Will Libya’s new leaders construct a more just economy or just lay out a fresh platform for neoliberal exploitation? In the democratic transition, if Libya is to remake itself as a nation, it will have to redefine economic citizenship.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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