At the battered terminal of Tripoli’s tiny Mitiga airport, over 150 young men and women jostle to be repatriated home to Nigeria on Libya’s Buraq airlines. This journey to Lagos is one of hundreds the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has facilitated since the start of the uprising against Gaddafi’s regime over a year ago.
IOM estimates that one million migrant workers were in Libya sending remittances home before the crisis, a heavy footprint for a Libyan population of under seven million.
Early on in the uprising, workers from Asia, the Middle East, and neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt fled across Libya’s borders. But Somali and Eritrean political refugees continued to arrive in Tripoli throughout the war; braving the harrowing journey north through Sudan.
IOM’s current flights are now filled with West Africans who traversed Niger and Chad to Libya seeking a better economic future, but whose ultimate hardships have forced them to return.
At Mitiga, many Nigerians don the brand new green sports jackets and shoes given to them by IOM, with their meagre possessions stuffed into plastic suitcases and shopping bags.
“The major problem is citizenship verification and temporary travel documentation,” explains Jeremy Haslam, IOM’s mission chief in Libya. “If they don’t have their documents – which I can say is (true for) over 90 percent – the first thing we have to do, before we can even think about repatriation, is confirm where they are from.”
While a few Nigerians look relieved to return home and laugh with comrades, the majority are in despair. After a costly and arduous car trip with smugglers over the desert into Libya, they have spent most days searching for piecemeal day labour, and living in perpetual fear of being harassed, robbed and detained or even murdered by the Libyan militias policing the streets. They will now return to families – often indebted to smugglers – empty-handed.
“When I got to Tripoli I worked at a car wash and got up to 50 Libyan Dinars (40 dollars) a day,” says Dennis, a soft-spoken 24-year old. “When the war came however, it was hell. I was robbed of my passport and money by the militia. They arrested me for 20 days and beat me up. During the war the militias were always stopping me, so I stayed indoors.”
Migrants interviewed often had their passports confiscated or lost early on, and none possessed entry visas. Libya is not a destination country for most, but a stepping-stone to Europe. While assault against African migrants may have lessened since the war racism is still pervasive, they say.
Many Nigerians at the airport terminal know each other. Each forked out around 1,200 dollars for a dangerous boat ride to Europe late last year, only to be apprehended by Libyan authorities while at sea and jailed in Tripoli’s Ain Zara prison for the past three months.
One among them is Shauna, a 38 year-old mother to daughters Angel, 4, and Blessed, 1. She was heavily pregnant when her husband reached Italy by himself at the start of Libya’s conflict. She gave birth to Blessed in an apartment in Tripoli, and then paid for a boat ride.
She was arrested with both daughters, and all three spent time in prison. “I don’t have any money,” Shauna says, opening her handbag full of torn, waterlogged documents and children’s drawings. “What am I to do?”
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that roughly 50,000 people attempted to cross the Mediterranean by boat in 2011, and close to 2,000 drowned. Rumours persist that Gaddafi encouraged the crossings to Europe in retribution over NATO strikes. However, the numbers are small in the context of last year’s overall migration from Libya; the largest in the region since World War II.
“It’s a very complicated picture,” says IOM’s Haslam. “Migrants may have been moved from a basement of a house where they were protected for some time, and then whoever was protecting them couldn’t handle it any longer. They pass them to the next entity, person, group, militia – and they are bouncing all over the place. They may have been working in forced labour to earn their keep.
“Maybe some opportunistic types have seen they can actually trade migrants,” says Haslam. “It gets into the whole debt-bondage deal. Migrants are being sold on now for 260 – 800 LD (208 – 642 dollars) per person. You come across enough cases to see a trend. We saw a discount on one particular day of 21,000 LD (16,875 dollars) for 78 people – that’s a knocked-down price for West Africans, with women and children among them.”
Economic and political refugees now face another new threat. Libya’s minister for labour, Mustafa Ali Rugibani, has declared a Mar. 4 expulsion deadline for irregular workers. Despite the lack of a transparent system to process people in place, he says, “if they are not legalised they will be deported.”
“I hope they won’t expel people who should not be expelled, such as asylum seekers and refugees, or people in need of international protection,” says Emmanuel Gignac, UNHCR’s mission head in Libya.
On a sodden, winter day at a Tripoli railway yard that a Chinese company was building before the war, hundreds of refugees from Somalia and to a lesser extent, Eritrea, live in ramshackle housing. The government-owned property is now ‘managed’ by a local militia, replete with 4Ã-4 trucks patrolling with anti-aircraft guns, and a detention cell.
This militia is entrepreneurial – charging refugees 24 dollars each per month to stay, and assigning them laminate ID cards. They offer ‘protection’ and paid daily labour – as well as harassment, the residents claim.
Seventeen-year-old Ayan is originally from the Ogaden region in southeast Ethiopia, but had been living in Mogadishu. It took her seven months to reach Libya, and after some boys accidentally hit her during an overcrowded car ride through the desert, she developed physical pain that won’t go away. Her friend, Fawza, 20, is also from Mogadishu. “In Somalia, there is forced marriage and no education. Every day people are dying from the war,” she says.
All the residents interviewed said they want to go to Europe, despite the fact that 15 recently washed-up bodies from a shipwreck were Somalis from their camp.
“I am going to Italy, I have many friends there,” exclaims Theodras from Eritrea, who is able to find work three days a week loading trucks. When asked about the labour ministry’s threat of expulsion, he replies: “Who cares – we will get to where we are going.”