2011-03-05 Cables: The Vulnerability of Black African Migrant Workers in Libya

ImageA cable from December 2007 features Gaddafi Development Foundation Executive Director Dr. Yusuf Sawani discussing trans-national terrorism threats and security with US diplomats. The director talks about the fact that a million sub-Saharan African guest workers are resident in Libya and says it should be a “cause of concern.” The workers are a concern because Dr. Sawani believes any of those individuals could possibly commit an act of terrorism. In recent days, many of those guest workers have fled, as Libyans have grown suspicious and attacked a number of black Africans due to reports that Leader Muammar Gaddafi hired “black African mercenaries.”

The latest from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicates 191,000 or more have fled Libya to Egypt, Tunisia and Niger. A previous report estimated around 80,000 Pakistanis, 59,000 Sudanese, 50,000 Bangladeshis, 26,000 Filipinos, 2,000 Nepalese and other African and Asian migrant workers are hosted by the country.

OCHA reports have been tracking the risk of violence migrant workers face. In a March 3 update, OCHA notes, “Sub-Saharan nationals remain at risk of violence from local populations on suspicion of being Government-recruited mercenaries.” A report on March 2 detailed the needs of those fleeing Libya highlights the need for protection. It reads:

Fighting in the west of Libya has raised serious protection concerns among humanitarian agencies. UNHCR has also expressed concern for African migrant workers and refugees trapped in Tripoli and unable to flee. Islamic Relief has expressed concern for a group of 200 Africans currently in Benghazi who fear they will be accused of being mercenaries.

Afrol News reported last week that the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR was “becoming increasingly concerned” because, for example, “a journalist” had passed on information “from Somalis in Tripoli who say they are being hunted on suspicion of being mercenaries. He told the agency Somalis “feel trapped and are frightened to go out, even though there is little or no food at home.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres appeared on “Frost Over the World” (eighteen minutes into the program) and told David Frost on March 5 workers trying to get out of Libya are most vulnerable right now: “There are hundreds of thousands of African workers in Libya, and very few have shown up at the borders…We have received phone calls from people in a desperate situation, afraid of leaving their homes. It's the situation of these African communities inside Libya that now corresponds to our biggest concern.”

Libya, according to Afrol News, has had a problem with racism for a long time that has grown as a result of the Gaddafi regime allowing “scores of Africans” to cross the Sahara, temporarily reside in Libya and then move on to Europe. Sub-Saharan Africans have typically been “lowest on the social ladder” and have increasingly reported discrimination.

Most of the cables from Libya show a Gaddafi regime that does not want to face the problem of racism or believe that a problem even exists. 08TRIPOL921, which focuses on the regime’s reaction to tribal violence in Kufra. Reports of violent clashes between Toubou tribesmen (including Chadian and Libyan citizens) and Zawiya tribesmen (mostly Arabs) are rejected as “externally-generated propaganda” (much in the same way that protests have been in the past weeks).

The comment at the end of the cable reads:

As in parallel cases such as the 2006 riots in Benghazi, the GOL suppressed real-time coverage of recent events in Kufra and has since rolled out a carefully managed series of revisionist reports in state-owned media that minimized the extent of the conflict, blamed foreign media and opposition for exaggerated reports and highlighted pledges of loyalty to al-Qadhafi. The clear premium is on maintaining the appearance of political order, underscoring the ostensibly universal popularity of al-Qadhafi's rule and minimizing any hint of ethnic or tribal tension. The latter is a neuralgic issue for a regime that, despite its professions of tolerance, publicly (and inaccurately) maintains that Libya is an ethnically and religiously homogeneous state of Arabs. As reported ref C, al-Qadhafi privately told Berber leaders in May that " ... you can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes -- Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever -- but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes.”

A cable, that has likely been overlooked because it tells a delightfully offbeat story of a “frogman who couldn’t swim,” includes some significant details on the nature of guest worker migration through Libya to Italy. The cable highlights Italy’s frustration with the Gaddafi regime on issues related to counterterrorism and combating illegal migration.

…Italy was alarmed by the marked increase in the number of illegal migrants that had arrived in Italy - primarily on the island of Lampedusa - from Libya. By way of example, he offered that 1,300 Tunisian illegal migrants traveled from Libya to Italy in 2007. In 2008, 5,900 Tunisians made landfall in Italy after departing from Libya's coast. The number of migrants from Somalia - "a derelict state" - who had arrived in Italy increased from 5,110 in 2007 to 31,764 in 2008. The number of Nigerians had increased threefold and featured a heavy contingent of prostitutes and narco-traffickers…

In the cable, Italian Ambassador Francesco Trupiani describes a visit to the “remote southern city of Ghat (located in the southwest, near Libya's border with Algeria, Niger and Chad).” He talks about the city being in a “harsh desert environment and difficult economic situation” that stems from “flour shortages” (during his visit “there was no bread in the city”). Illegal migrants hire local guides, many of them nomadi Tuareg, who are fiercely proud they are not Arabs and are not “uniformly loyal” to the Gaddafi regime. Trupiani says they have suffered “discrimination at the hands of the Arab majority” and are “disproportionately poor.”

Interestingly, it appears that Tuaregs in Libya and from Chad, Niger and Mali might be taking up arms to fight as mercenaries for Gaddafi. They likely will be paid large sums of money up front to go out and kill those who are fueling the revolution.

This backlash against black African workers was probably to be expected. On February 16, 2010, a statement before the UN Human Rights Council by UN Watch was made calling for Libya to end its racism against black African migrants and others. The statement begins, “Libya must end its practices of racial discrimination against black Africans, particularly its racial persecution of two million black African migrant workers. There is substantial evidence of Libya’s pattern and practice of racial discrimination against migrant workers.”

It describes “racist attacks on migrant workers” from Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria, who were “victims of attacks by Libyans targeting black migrants following a government-ordered crackdown on foreign employment, and state-sponsored news reports portraying African migrants as being involved in drug-trafficking or dealing in alcohol.”

Photo a screenshot from an Al Jazeera English video report on black Africans in Libya living in fear.

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