Racism and revolution: the plight of black Africans in Libya

 

Last Thursday as many as 350 migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, died as they tried to reach Italy by boat.

But as the world continues to reel from the shock of the Lampedusa tragedy, the spotlight is turning towards Libya, the point of the boat’s departure.

More than 30,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Italy by sea this year alone, according to the United Nations – mainly from Libya.

What are they running from?

In their home countries, which are mainly Eritrea, Somalia and increasingly, Syria, the answer is conflict, repression and persecution.

But Libya has also long been a base for guest workers from all over Africa who were attracted by its booming oil economy to find decent work.

For years they were welcomed by Muammar Gaddafi, but now, many of those same migrants are scrambling to flee Libya’s instability and deadly discrimination.

 

Divisions

As the second anniversary of the death of Gaddafi approaches, peace still eludes Libya.

Militias control much of the country, reconstruction of Libya’s war-damaged infrastructure is yet to be completed and oil production has fallen from more than 1.5 million barrels a day of high-quality crude oil to a recent low of about 150,000 barrels.

On Thursday, the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan was kidnapped by militia men connected to a rival politician, only to be released hours later.

The end of Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship – the result of an eight month civil war – also opened up huge divisions in Libyan society.

In particular, the lid was lifted on a fervent undercurrent of racism which has resulted in the detention, torture and murder of thousands of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrants since 2011.

Allegations of black mercenaries from countries like Chad, Niger and Mali killing civilians coupled with stories of mass rape allegedly committed by the mainly black inhabitants of Tawergha, has fuelled the mistreatment of dark-skinned people in recent years.

Equal Times met with some of the black African migrants trying to survive in Libya.

A group of Sudanese immigrants close to the eastern border with Egypt told us that following the 2011 February revolution, armed Libyans went from door-to-door looking for ‘Africans’.

“We were chased everywhere we went,” said J.Kawasili who originally comes from Somalia. “They said we supported Gaddafi and killed rebels and assaulted women.”

Kawasili says that he and the other migrants were forced to leave town and that while trying to escape, a 15-year-old Sudanese girl was raped by the rebels. He also says their identity documents were destroyed by the militia.

 

Terrible conditions

The exact number of sub-Saharan African refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants in Libya is unknown. However, some reports puts that figure at around 18,000.

In addition, the war in Syria has brought an estimated 110,000 refugees to Libya, many of whom have now moved on to Tunisia where better infrastructure offers more support, especially for the disabled or injured.

There are officially four camps for displaced people in Libya, located on the borders with Egypt, Tunisia and Chad. Only a lucky few stay manage to stay in these camps, which usually offer very basic facilities. The rest find shelter wherever they can.

For instance, there are some 650 refugees staying at the Choucha refugee camp on the Tunisian-Libyan border, despite the fact that it officially closed in July.

Water and electricity supplies have been cut but for many residents, staying there is better than nothing.

The Libyan Red Crescent (LRC) has only one camp, located in Misrata, which houses 800 people from countries such as Gambia, Ethiopia and Somalia. However, in recent months, about 5000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the city. Many have sought shelter at the camp, despite the terrible conditions there.  

One resident, John from Darfur, said residents had to endure freezing temperatures in the winter and boiling heat during the summer.

At the camp, Equal Times witnessed decrepit buildings with broken windows and open toilets.

When asked about his life before the fall of Gaddafi, John said he was a guest worker at a workshop in Benghazi. But he has no hope of going back, especially now that widespread prejudice means that sub-Saharan Africans are often considered to be criminals, drug dealers or drug addicts.

"Even if I could go back, they would not accept to hire me again," he says.

 

Departure

Libya is the main point of departure for African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Italy and other parts of southern Europe.

But the Italian government, working with the European border agency Frontex, has been criticised for using harsh methods to try and stop the flow of migrants rather than trying to give the help that refugees are entitled to under international law.

Methods include intercepting the small, fishing boats which carry them, while at sea, thus forcing them back to North Africa.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that around 500 migrants died or went missing as they attempted the crossing last year. But it is thought that at least 20,000 people have died trying to make that crossing since 1990.

Those who are forced back to Libya, or never make it out in the first place, are trapped in a legal no-man’s land as Libya has no national asylum policy.

There are very few legal channels available for the most vulnerable, meaning that those who most need help are effectively left on their own.

In the neighbouring countries, the situation is hardly any better. Egypt, which is also experiencing great instability at the moment, recently declared that no refugee camps will be allowed on its territory, as they are considered a threat to national security.

 

‘Libya Shield’

Back in Libya, the ‘Libya Shield’ is another major concern.

A group of former anti-Gaddafi militias who operate as a de facto army and police force under the country’s newly formed Ministry of Defence, one of its responsibilities is ‘securing’ the refugee camps and its residents.

In reality, this means stopping anyone from leaving, even if it means using extreme violence.

We heard stories of migrants and refugees who had their money, phones and even musical instruments stolen by the Libya Shield. Anyone who protests is severely beaten and subject to electric shocks.

A more useful role is played by the Libyan Humanitarian Relief Agency, or Libaid, the government entity responsible for coordinating national and international support for camps throughout the country.

Libaid’s says it is aware of the human rights abuses committed by Libya Shield and is holding a series of training workshops to try and address the issue.

But while conditions in the camp have potential for improvement, the real challenge happens outside the camp gates.

“We are not even safe in here,” says Danny, a refugee from South Sudan. “How can we guarantee what will happen beyond that fence?”

Many migrants feel abandoned by the international community.

Despite the limited presence of some intergovernmental bodies, international and national NGOs, most of these migrants are left to fend for themselves, as it is claimed that the ultimate responsibility for their safety lies with their governments.

Amnesty International recently called for the Libyan government to end the mistreatment of sub-Saharan African immigrants and asylum seekers.

It also called on the European Union to stop its draconian policies which keep people trapped in Libya when many of them have genuine grounds to claim asylum in Europe.

The organisation also claimed that it has strong evidence that sub-Saharan immigrants – including women and children – are being tortured by Libyan authorities in seven detention centres around the country.

Until the Libyan government and its international partners reach an agreement on how to stop these human rights abuses, the situation is unlikely to change – especially given the other challenges facing the country.

But for a ‘New Libya’ whose revolution was meant to secure equality and human rights for all, the situation remains a complete disgrace.