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North Africa: New Threats to Migrants
Mar 5, 2011 (110305)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"Sub-Saharan African workers [in Libya] are in dire need of
evacuation because of the threats they face. The people most in
need are mainly from poorer countries in Asia and Africa... whose
governments have apparently been unable or unwilling to rescue
them" - Human Rights Watch
No one knows the total number of migrant workers and immigrants in
Libya. The best estimates, cited by migration scholar Hein de Haas,
range from the 2006 census figure of 600,000 (10% of the population
resident in Libya) to over 2 million. As the Libyan crisis has
evolved, news sources reported first on the evacuation of Europeans
and others whose countries can afford to make special provision of
their citizens, such as Turkey and China. Then the primary focus
was on those crossing to Tunisia. The largest numbers, among the
more than 200,000 who have crossed the land borders to Egypt and
Tunisia, are reportedly Egyptian. Only in recent days, however,
have we begun to hear more about migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
While news stories and quotes from Libyans resisting the Qaddafi
regime have emphasized "mercenaries" from sub-Saharan Africa, most
sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya are simply the most
vulnerable among the migrant population, who have been subjected to
racist treatment both by the regime and by the public. See
Now they are further at risk, by being identified with the small
number of African foreigners who are in the pro-Qaddafi security
forces, whether voluntarily or recruited by force (people from
Niger told the BBC Hausa service that sub-Saharan Africans were
being arrested and forced to join Col. Gaddafi's forces or be
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) two articles from the new
blog by Hein de Haas, a leading scholar on North African migration
(http://www.heindehaas.com; http://heindehaas.blogspot.com), and
(2) two brief reports on the situation of Eritrean and Somali
migrants in particular.
For other recent articles and commentaries on African migrants in
the current Libyan crisis, see the new blog "Mayibuye Africa" by
Nunu Kidane at http://priorityafricanetwork.blogspot.com for March
3 and Sean Jacob's blog "Africa is a Country" at http://africasacountry.com for March 4. For the Human Rights Watch
press release of March 2 visit http://www.hrw.org (direct link:
As noted in the commentaries by Hein de Haas, the issues raised in
the current crisis are rooted not only in the political crisis of
the Libyan regime, but also in the migration systems systematically
linking Europe, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. Among recent
articles and studies worth noting:
(1) "Migrants in Israel Face Uncertainty, Despite Oscar"
New York Times, March 1, 2011
The film "Strangers No More," on a school in Israel with migrants
from many countries, won an Oscar. But many of the students and
their parents face deportation.
(2) The Israeli Hotline for Migrant Workers in February published
testimonies from migrants victimized by smugglers in the Sinai
Desert: "The Dead of the Wilderness." The report is available for
download on their website:
(3) This month, Luís Peral published a study for the European
Union Institute for Security Studies on "Mass Exodus and the
Responsibility to Protect under International and European Law: The
Case of Libya), which argues that European policies have violated
the rights of asylum seekers trying to reach Europe by
collaboration with Libya and other rights-abusing regimes, and that
all non-EU citizens fleeing Libya should have a prima facie case
for protection as asylum seekers. The paper is available for
download at http://www.iss.europa.eu (direct URL:
For current information on the humanitarian situation in Libya and
among those fleeing Libya, visit http://www.reliefweb.int
Regular updates from the International Organization for Migration
(IOM) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration issues, see
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Libya, documenting the
situation of migrant workers and refugees in Libya, see
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
African migrants become easy target for racist violence in Libya
Hein De Haas Blog
February 21, 2011
Who cares about African migrants in Libya? Now that Gaddafi is
killing and bombing his own people, Western countries and companies
are trying to get their citizens out of Libya. Also Egypt and
Turkey are facilitating the return of the thousands of migrants
living in Libya by chartering flights and opening land borders.
But why is nobody concerned about the plight of sub-Saharan African
migrants in Libya? As victims of racism and ruthless exploitation,
they are Libya's most vulnerable immigrant population, and their
home country governments do not give them any support.
Since the news had surfaced that Gaddafi has allegedly hired
'black' mercenaries to kill people, their situation has become
outright dangerous. There is a huge danger that there will soon be
a day of reckoning for African migrants, and the arbitrary violence
has possibly started already.
As one commentator mentioned "Where is the proof that this people
are mercenaries and not just normal Black people?" Are Black
Libyans or Black immigrants in Libya safe from wrong accusations?
The answer is "no". Sadly, innocent African migrants living in
Libya have become an easy target for angry mobs.
That scapegoating migrants is also part of official strategies
became clear during Sunday's speech by Gaddafi's son, Saif Al
Islam, on national Libyan television. As is common for threatened
dictators, Saif's speech was full of conspiracy theory - blaming
usual suspects such as imperialists, the BBC and Al Jazeera (!) -
but also immigrants. He mentioned that he and his daddy will fight
until the last bullet. An ominous sign, showing how mad Gaddafi is
- and that he might not refrain from further mass killings to take
revenge on the people who have dared to challenge his rule - 'After
me, the deluge'.
What makes the situation particularly dangerous are Gaddafi's
insinuations that foreigners are to blame for the violence and mass
killings. This put the tens or hundreds of thousands of Egyptian
and sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya at great risk.
Most people as well as the media seem to think that most African
migrants use Libya as a transit country on their way to Europe.
Gaddafi has shrewdly exploited largely unfounded European fears of
an African invasion to position himself as a partner in the
so-called 'fight against illegal immigration' - which has earned
him billions of dollars in bilateral deals, and helped him to
Gaddafi has repeatedly threatened to open the migration floodgates
if he does not get more support, and a few days ago he also warned
European governments that they will be flooded with migrants if
they keep on supporting protesters. European governments seem to be
afraid of the immigration consequences of North African
instability, and this is also one of the factors that seems to have
driven their staunch support for North African despots over the
In fact, politicians and the media hugely exaggerate the scale of
illegal migration from Africa to Europe. According to the best
available estimates, only a few tens of thousands of migrants cross
the Mediterranean illegally by boat each year, representing only 1
to 2 percent of total immigration to Europe.
Leaving aside the fact that fear of an African 'invasion' is
entirely unfounded, what Gaddafi has been much more keen to hide is
that Libya is an important migration destination in its own right,
and that his guestworker policies are the main explanation behind
a massive increase in the number of African workers in Libya. Most
African migrants have come from countries such as Niger, Chad and
elsewhere in West Africa to work as low-paid labourers in the oil
industry, construction, agriculture and service sectors. African
workers tend to do the most dangerous and dirty jobs.
Not many people know that most African migrants do not use Libya as
a passage to Europe, but that they have come to Libya as part of
Gaddafi's guestworker schemes or as illegal labour migrants.
According to several estimates, Libya hosts 2 to 2.5 million
immigrants, representing 25 to 30 percent of its total population.
This includes about half a million Egyptians; several tens of
thousands of Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians; and 1 to 1.5
million sub-Saharan Africans (for further information see 'The Myth
of Invasion' (http://tinyurl.com/4a7ojmu).
Since the 1990s, Gaddafi has actively stimulated immigration from
sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger as part of his
'pan-African' policies. These immigrants from extremely poor
countries were easier to exploit than Arab workers. From 2000
onwards, violent clashes between Libyans and African workers led to
the street killings of dozens of sub-Saharan migrants, who were
routinely blamed for rising crime, disease and social tensions.
In an apparent attempt to respond to growing domestic racism, the
Libyan regime hardened its policies towards African immigrants.
Measures included lengthy and arbitrary detention of immigrants in
poor conditions in prisons and camps, physical abuse, and the
forced expulsion of tens of thousands of immigrants. Gaddafi has
been happy to conclude agreements with Italy and other European
states to violently crack down on immigration in exchange for
lucrative trade and arms deals. This has led to blatant violation
of international refugee law. In many ways, it has served European
countries well that Libya has not signed the Geneva refugee
convention and is not concerned about human rights at all.
Of course this repression has not stopped migration, but mainly
facilitated exploitation of African migrants in Libya, whose
position became even more vulnerable. While the Gaddafi regime has
tried to put the blame on immigrants for all sorts of social
problems, their cheap labour force has served Libya very well
According to several sources, Gaddafi has now hired thousands of
mercenaries from Chad and other poor sub-Saharan countries to do
the actual killings. This is a truly diabolic move - as the Gaddafi
clan now tries to blame the killings on the 'foreign element' who
were hired by him in the first place. This might fuel racist
violence and further destabilisation of the country.
It is not clear to what extent these mercenaries have been
recruited among migrants or directly in the origin countries.
However, irrespective of their background, the apparent presence of
black African mercenaries has certainly only fuelled already
present racist feelings towards African immigrants.
African immigrants are now linked to state-orchestrated violence
and mass killings, and we may therefore fear the worst about the
violent backlash that may follow particularly after Gaddafi is
ousted - they will be an easy target for mass lynching that may
follow. And in the unlikely case Gaddafi manages to cling on to
power, African migrants are equally likely to be scapegoated and
Let's hope that Gaddafi's devilish tactics to put the blame on
foreigners and immigrants won't work - and that Libyans will hold
Gaddafi entirely responsible for these mass killings. However,
there is a huge danger that the violence might increasingly turn
against the hundreds of thousands of innocent and hard-working
African immigrants living in Libya.
European governments, which have been so keen to support Gaddafi
and have turned a blind eye to the massive human rights abuses in
return for economic benefits, have no right to abuse unjustified
fears concerning an immigrant invasion - which are fueled by their
own anti-immigrant rhetoric - to deny refugees inside and from
Libya their rights to protection from violence and death.
Speculations on a 'biblical exodus' from Libya are wrong and
by Hein de Haas and Emanuela Paoletti
Hein De Haas Blog
February 25, 2011
In the face of continuing violence in Libya, it is striking to see
how the attention of some European governments is already shifting
from the unprecedented suffering of people in Libya to selfish
panic about immigration issues. This panic has particularly
revolved around predictions that massive numbers of migrants and
asylum seekers will start moving from Libya to Italy in the wake of
the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
The Italian government even warned of a 'biblical exodus' to
Europe. The media have also started to use such apocalyptic
images. However, there are many reasons to believe that such
predictions are wrong as they vastly exaggerate the true, much more
limited scale of migration. They are also dangerous because
unrealistic fears of mass immigration may fuel racism and
effectively undermine refugee protection.
Over the past decade or so, European politicians have become
increasingly obsessed by immigration questions in an attempt to
respond to mounting racism and popular anti-immigration feelings.
They have also actively played into and further reinforced such
fears by employing rhetoric which portrays immigration as an
external threat to security, the sovereignty of the state and
social cohesion and cultural integrity.
Politicians desire to give an impression of controlling immigration
by using tough and belligerent language such as the need to 'fight'
and 'combat' illegal migration. Yet this obscures the fact that
European governments have little genuine economic interest in
stopping migration. The anti-immigration rhetoric about immigration
fears also conceals the fact that African migration to Europe is
fuelled by a structural demand for cheap migrant labour and that
democratic states have limited means to effectively stop migration
as long as this demand persists.
So, the main issue for politicians is to give the appearance to
their constituencies that they are fully in control of borders and
are successfully fulfilling their 'security imperative'. This
manipulation of the migration issues reveals a well-tried pattern
of politicians who willingly reinforce or invent external threats
to create a common cause. As already argued by Nando Sigona for the
case of the recent arrivals of Tunisians on the Italian island of
Lampedusa, the creation of 'emergency discourses' on migration can
be a highly effective means for politicians to divert attention
away from domestic political problems, as in the case of
Not only politicians, but also the media play an important role in
creating apocalyptic images about African-European migration. Media
outlets are often eager to use sensational terms to maintain
momentum and galvanize people's emotions. To some, this may perhaps
sound quite extreme. Yet, at the risk of generalization, this is
what is clearly happening in the mainstream coverage of Libya. The
lack of verifiable information is not helping, either. Journalists
and commentators are relying on scattered and often unreliable
So, in the midst of this 'controlled' information maelstrom, wild
and totally unfounded speculations by politicians about hundreds of
thousands of migrants and asylum seekers about to migrate to Europe
can easily become self-referring and presented as 'facts'. This is
not only inaccurate, but is also harmful, as speculations about
'massive immigration' serve to portray immigration and immigrants
as a threat.
While it has been amply documented that there are between 1.5 and
2 million regular and irregular migrants in Libya, and while we may
expect certain increases in emigration from Libya as a response to
instability and violence, it seems rather absurd to assume that the
large majority of immigrants currently living in Libya would
collectively migrate to Europe.
Politicians, journalists and researchers should therefore refrain
from manipulating people's fears by projecting images of millions
of people arriving on European shores, because there is simply no
evidence, and because it is dangerous. To start with, it ignores
what is happening on the ground and the true scale of migrant and
refugee flows. Since the onset of the Libyan revolt, significant
numbers of migrant workers are fleeing out of Libya. It has been
estimated that over the last few days over 5,000 people have
arrived at the Tunisian border and some 15,000 at the Egyptian
border. Other migrants have moved south, towards Niger. According
to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the total
number of arrivals in Egypt, Tunisia and Niger so far would be
about 40,000 to 50,000. These are significant numbers, but they
also do not have the proportions of a 'biblical exodus', and they
certainly question the prevailing, and false, wisdom according to
which most people in Libya would move to Europe.
So far, the unanticipated political turmoil across North Africa has
had significant but certainly not alarmist impact on migration
within the region and across the Mediterranean. A few weeks ago,
boats carrying a few thousand Tunisians arrived on the tiny Italian
island of Lampedusa in the wake of the fall of the Ben Ali regime.
The Italian government was swift to declare this a national
emergency issue, whereas the total numbers were actually tiny in
comparison to overall regular and irregular immigration to Italy.
This shows how politicians often blow the scale of migration out of
proportion, and that they would do so on purpose.
More in general, ideas of a looming 'invasion' to Europe of a large
number of African migrants have long proven to be entirely
fictitious. It is of course impossible to predict the exact impact
of the current - let alone future - turmoil on regional migration
flows. However, based on experiences with previous crises we can
get some sense of the possible scale and direction of migration.
While refugee flows can be rather big, most refugees tend to
migrate within regions. Even in the worst case scenario of a
full-scale humanitarian crisis and protracted conflict, we cannot
just assume that all migrants currently in Libya would simply turn
up in Europe, because most migrants will prefer to go their home
countries and many of those who would wish to go to Europe will not
have the resources to do so.
The unwarranted portrayal of future African-European migration as
an emergency issue is particularly dangerous because it diverts the
attention away from more important and urgent issues. This
particularly applies to the precarious position of people - Libyans
and migrants - inside Libya. First, there is evidence that African
migrants and asylum seekers in Libya have been the target of racist
violence because some citizens of sub-Saharan African countries
they have been suspected of being mercenaries. In fact videos
suggest that alleged mercenaries have been captured and lynched by
Libyan protestors. Somalis in Tripoli, for example, have been
hunted and are frightened to go out. According to the Italian
representative for the UNHCR, Libya is witnessing a 'hunt for the
African foreigner'. Second, most refugee movements are concentrated
within the North African and Sahelian region. Instead of inventing
a false immigration threat to European security and losing time and
energy in European conflicts about 'burden sharing', the priority
should be protecting the lives of migrants and refugees in Libya
and North Africa as well as Libyans themselves under threat by the
Politicians and the media should therefore refrain from fomenting
alarmist feelings about a 'biblical exodus' based on latent racist
fears rather than a real understanding of what is going on on the
ground. At the same time, the international community should take
a more forceful and proactive stance towards the state terror and
violence occurring in Libya. As Lisa Anderson recently argued, this
crisis may be a good test of the United Nations and the
international community to discharge its 'responsibility to
protect' citizens from predatory governments. Such a truly
humanitarian approach requires that we eschew uninformed,
Eurocentric and highly deceptive portrayals of African people, and
migrants in general, as the frightening 'other' who are about to
Italy: Eritrean asylum seekers need to be evacuated from Tripoli
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)
Rome, 03 March 2011 - Echoing the appeal by the Papal Nuncio in
Tripoli, Monsignor Martinelli, JRS Italy and Malta urge European
Union governments to evacuate the approximate 2,000 Eritrean asylum
seekers from Libya. These asylum seekers are pleading not to be
forced to choose between Libya and home where their lives would be
"Help us evacuate the Eritrean refugees from Libya. They only wish
to live in peace", said Monsignor Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli
regarding the 2,000 Eritreans in Libya.
"These people are living in shameful circumstances. They don't have
any identification papers. They have health problems. Many are
mothers with small children who need milk and medical care", added
the Apostolic Vicar.
"I hope that European countries, in particular Italy, take this
humanitarian crisis seriously. Given the unstable situation in
Libya, their lives would be put at great risk", he stated.
In support of the heartfelt call from the nuncio, JRS Italy and
Malta urge all states of the EU to assume responsibility for the
Eritrean asylum seekers, respecting their right to protection in a
"It is only 2,000 people, not a particularly significant number for
the European Union. A gesture that states should think of as
ordinary, EU governments would provide an extraordinary service to
persons whose lives are at risk. European nations, including Italy,
have an opportunity to demonstrate their humanity faced with a
humanitarian crisis", said JRS Italy Director, Giovanni La Manna
Libya-Somalia: Stranded Somali migrants unsure where to turn
Nairobi, 2 March 2011 (IRIN) - Some 2,500 Somali migrants in the
Libyan capital Tripoli, under the control of Libyan leader Col
Muammar Gaddafi, are holed up in the violence-affected city and
unsure what to do, say Somali migrants there.
"We have not left our house in the last 12 days. If we go out we
are liable to be attacked," one of the Somalis, Mohamed Aweys, told
IRIN by phone from Tripoli. "A friend who went out on 1 March to
get some supplies has not returned. We have not seen or heard of
him since; his mobile is switched off."
There were 30 Somalis in his house - all seeking refuge and unable
to go out to buy basic necessities. "So far, the report we have is
that five Somalis have been killed in Tripoli," he added. These
claims could not be independently confirmed.
Another 500 in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Aweys said, had
been targeted as suspected pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. "We spoke to
some of them on the phone in Benghazi and they are hiding in their
Another Somali in Tripoli, Mahamud Ahmed, said: "We have nothing to
do with their [Libyans'] problems. Most of us came here to escape
our own problems and look for a better life and now we are caught
up in a life-and-death situation."
He said food stocks were running low. "The landlord has been buying
things for us, but we are running out of everything. We had some
money when the unrest started but we are day labourers and have not
worked for 12 days."
Asked if they would try and reach the Egyptian or Tunisian border,
like other foreign nationals, Ahmed said: "We are afraid we will
get killed before we reach any border."
While governments around the world were evacuating their citizens
from Libya, "Somalis have no effective government that can come to
our rescue," Ahmed said. "No one is speaking for us."
Somali women are most fearful of what could happen. "I came here
about a year and half ago to go to Europe but I have not succeeded
so far; now I am caught up in the same thing that I fled in
Somalia," Shamso Mohammed told IRIN.
Shamso, like most of her compatriots, left Somalia for Sudan, then
crossed the desert into Libya. "We almost died in the desert, but
thank God we made it into Libya."
She said three of her friends [women] had disappeared five days
earlier. "They were called to work and they went; the last report
we have is they were taken in a car by armed men. We don't know
what they did to them and there is no one to complain to."
Maryan Ali, who is staying in the same house as Shamso, said she
was afraid someone would come to their house and attack them. Some
houses where Somalis were staying, she added, had been reportedly
"We need someone to help get us out of here," Maryan. "The longer
this continues the worse our situation gets. If we are not killed,
we may die of hunger."
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the recent unrest has left
thousands of foreign workers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and
Europe, homeless and penniless.
"Sub-Saharan African workers are in dire need of evacuation because
of the threats they face. The people most in need are mainly from
poorer countries in Asia and Africa... whose governments have
apparently been unable or unwilling to rescue them"
"Thousands upon thousands of foreign workers remain stuck in
Benghazi, after being forced from their factories and losing their
possessions in last week's tumultuous events," HRW's emergencies
director Peter Bouckaert said.
"Sub-Saharan African workers are in dire need of evacuation because
of the threats they face. The people most in need are mainly from
poorer countries in Asia and Africa... whose governments have
apparently been unable or unwilling to rescue them."
According to HRW, international law does not require third
countries to evacuate or repatriate migrants during emergencies of
the kind currently in Libya, but in circumstances where particular
nationality groups are targeted for persecution there is an
obligation not to expose them to the risk of such persecution.
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