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World Perspective | AFRICA

Migrant Workers From Ghana Who Fled Libya Cite Racism

December 16, 2000|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TECHIMAN, Ghana — Thousands of Ghanaian migrant workers who recently returned from Libya after attacks there against black Africans say they are relieved to be home, though their hopes of finding their fortunes have been destroyed.

At least 5,200 Ghanaians have returned since October, after violence against blacks that, by unofficial accounts, left more than 135 dead. In addition, thousands of laborers from Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and other nations have fled Libya, taking a strong resentment toward Libyans with them.

"It was not easy, because being a black man [in Libya], you can't live there simply," said George Auther, 26, who returned here in October after spending two years in the predominantly Arab nation as a builder's apprentice. "You can't move around freely. The problem is, the Libyans don't like blacks."

Although the violence appears to have eased, the attacks threaten to undermine efforts by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi to drum up support for a union of African nations.

Ostracized by the West, Kadafi has sought to build African solidarity and in recent years has eased immigration rules, which has caused the number of black African workers in Libya to grow to about one-sixth of the nation's population of more than 5 million.

But with the Libyan economy under strain in recent years from lower oil prices and a trade embargo, animosity toward migrant workers seems to have boiled over. The violence erupted in September, after an order by Libyan authorities to crack down on employment of foreign workers. Officials also accused some black Africans of making illegal alcohol, running brothels and engaging in financial scams.

Kadafi blamed the violence on "hidden hostile hands" bent on sabotaging his plans for greater African unity. Many of the repatriated laborers, who expressed support for the Libyan leader's pan-African ideals, blamed the hostility on racism.

"President Kadafi has a good idea, but his people don't like blacks, and they don't think they are Africans because of their skin color," said Kwame Amponsah, 22. He spent three months in Libya before fleeing in October, returning to Ghana's poor southwestern agricultural Brong-Ahafo region. As many as 80% of the nation's returnees hail from this area, according to authorities.

"Even small boys would throw stones at us," said taxi driver Seed Bafo, 23, who went to Libya in the spring with hopes of earning enough money to buy a taxi but who returned to Ghana last month. "They would cover their noses when we walked by. They called us monkeys."

Bafo, who worked in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, as a builder's apprentice, said he once was beaten by youths and thrown off a bus.

The goals of most of the migrant laborers are to make money to send home and eventually to find passage to Europe. Desperation has led thousands of Ghanaians between 18 and 30 to make the monthlong trip through at least two other countries, risking banditry and starvation and braving the Sahara Desert to reach Tripoli and what they hope will be a better life.

"I had made up my mind that I would not come back to Ghana," said Auther, who during his stay in Libya managed to send home about $1,200, a respectable sum in a country where the minimum wage is less than $1 a day. But life in the Arab nation proved intolerable, Auther said. Blacks were constantly at risk of being arbitrarily arrested and harassed by police, or mugged and beaten by residents, he said.

Auther said thieves took $2,600 and all his belongings. But he counts himself lucky, saying he was the only one of four housemates in Tripoli who was not killed.

The mass repatriation of migrant workers has put further pressure on Ghana's flagging economy.

"There are already people here trying to make ends meet, and the government has not been able to help them," said Philip Prempeh, chief liaison officer for information and training for the National Mobilization Program, which is charged with helping re-integrate returnees. "And now we have this influx, it has not been easy."

Many repatriates said they will now try to seek their fortunes in their own backyard despite the hardships.

"I pray to God to help me get a better job so I can look after my parents, as they have looked after me," said Auther, who drives a taxi here. "But I would never attempt to go back again to Libya."

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