As Libya erupts into civil war, migrant laborers from sub-Saharan Africa are coming under increasing threat of mob violence due to reports that African mercenaries are helping Muammar Qaddafi brutally quash a nation-wide uprising against his 41-year rule.
Many of the estimated 2.5 million migrant workers in Libya before the uprising are from sub-Saharan Africa, and unlike workers from the West – or from countries such as Turkey, China, and South Korea – Africans have had a hard time making it out of the country.
Few have the institutional support of their countries, many lack the money needed for the expensive journey home, and thousands remain too scared to try to make their way out of the country for fear of being beaten or killed by rebel mobs flush with animosity for anyone with dark skin and African features.
Many experts – and African migrant workers themselves – say the animosity stems from anti-African racism found throughout the Arab world. But some say the anger has been made much worse by Mr. Qaddafi’s moves to buy the loyalty of black Libyans from the south of the country as well as his decades-long efforts to build Africa-wide patronage networks at great cost to the country’s Arab majority.
“I think that there are levels of racism within Libyan society that are quite problematic. But racism is not just against other Africans, meaning non-Libyan Africans, but also within Libya itself,” says Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Qaddafi’s bodyguards, many of those people are actually from the south of Libya, partly because Qaddafi trusts them more than he would trust people from the north for various tribal and other reasons.”
Issaka Souare, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, also thinks that the resentment toward dark-skinned Africans is connected to Qaddafi’s tribal allegiances and his perceived favoritism of Libya’s south as well as his “Pan-Africanism.”
Mr. Souare says there may be among Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebels in the long-neglected, now “liberated” east of the country an unwillingness to accept that other Libyans could support Qaddafi.
“There seems to be this idea that if people are supporting Qaddafi, it must be mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, because it could not be the work of Libyans,” says Mr. Souare. “It must be these savage Africans.”
Tales of beatings and threats
The West African nation of Ghana has repatriated more than 500 of its estimated 10,000 workers in Libya. Many of the workers who moved to cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi in search of a better life have returned with stories of looting, threats, and beatings.
“Day in and out we couldn’t sleep,” says Ibrahim Zachariah, steel fixer from the West African nation of Ghana who made it home last week after braving the threat of violence to leave Libya. “We wore our shoes when we slept, because we knew anything could happen at any time.”
Mr. Zachariah had been living in Benghazi for two years before the uprising began last month. He worked for a construction company, making three times more than he would in Ghana and hoped to save for a house. He said his situation grew dire after the company management ran and left the workers behind without paying them their wages.
Zachariah and the other employees lived within the company’s compound for days as gunshots were fired outside. He says anti-Qaddafi mobs broke into the compound where there were many African migrant workers, stole their money and burned their clothes and the machines.
“This is all I brought to Ghana,” he said pointing to his clothes. “I lost everything.”
Zachariah and his friend paid for a seat in a car to the Egyptian border and traveled with two Chadians. Zachariah said the Chadians were forced to get out of the car by opposition forces at a roadblock and he and his friend were allowed to continue on to the border because they were Ghanaian. Qaddafi has a known history of lavishing the nation’s wealth to build connections with leaders in neighboring Chad, but has no such history in Ghana, which is much further from Libya.
‘They call you a slave’
Hussein Zachariah, a welder from Ghana who worked for a Turkish construction company in Benghazi for three years before conflict began, says he was often verbally abused on the street and had stones thrown at him.
“They say a lot of things about you,” says Mr. Zachariah, no relation to Ibrahim Zachariah. “They call you a slave.”
He claimed that his friend was accused of being a mercenary fighter and that he witnessed him being severely beaten by “protesters” on the street.
Racism nothing new in Libya
Racism toward migrant laborers from sub-Saharan Africa is not a new phenomenon in Libya.
In 2000 the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) condemned attacks and alleged killings of migrant workers from Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria allegedly by young Libyans targeting black migrants particularly in the East of the country, after the government ordered a crackdown on illegal migrant workers. According to a statement made in 2000 by the ICFTU the attacks “were provoked by news portraying African migrants as being involved in drug-trafficking or dealing in alcohol.”
Human Rights Watch also documented racist attacks on migrant workers and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan in Libya in 2006 and 2009. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has long put pressure on Libya to address the issue of racial discrimination against black African migrants. The issue of racial discrimination against black Africans was most recently raised at the United Nations Human Rights Council in February of 2010.