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Libya is a lure for migrants, where exploitation waits

Libya's relative wealth draws many Africans seeking a better life. Often they instead find abuse, imprisonment without charge and even a kind of modern-day slavery.

April 08, 2012|By Glen Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • African immigrants lie in a makeshift detention center in Gharyan, Libya, south of the capital, Tripoli.
African immigrants lie in a makeshift detention center in Gharyan, Libya,… (Mahmud Turkia, AFP/Getty…)

TRIPOLI, Libya — Ahmed Mostafa and his friends paid thousands of dollars among them to get to Libya recently, traveling with gangs of smugglers through Western Africa. It was to be their escape from the sprawling slums of Ghana's capital city, Accra.

Mostafa had heard rumors of arbitrary arrests and Libyan lynch mobs during the war last year in which longtime Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi was ousted and killed. But he was counting on luck: "It was not something I really thought about," he said. "I thought I would come and secure some work. Then send some money to my family."

Instead, he and his 10 friends wound up in a government-run prison, Twoshi Detention Center, sleeping on small foam mattresses, dozens to a room. A militia had spied them two weeks earlier walking along a dusty road in the country's north and detained them. They remain in the prison, uncharged and without legal representation.

In Libya, illegal migration is once again picking up, conducted through two primary trafficking corridors in the east and west of the country. A stream of Africans — Somalis, Eritreans, Nigerians, Sudanese, Malians — dreaming of a new life have made the perilous trip to Libya. But as turmoil continues to reign through much of the country, many of these migrants are being rounded up and detained, in some cases, to be exploited as forced laborers.

"The going rate for a migrant is anywhere from 260 to 800 Libyan dinars," or about $210 to $645, said Jeremy Haslam, chief of the Libya mission for the International Organization for Migration. "One of the problems is that many detention facilities are not currently under state control, instead administered by local councils and even private parties. The latter may involve organized crime, running human trafficking operations — modern-day slavery."

At some detention facilities, staff members lease out black African detainees to employers, who make a contribution to the jails to help cover costs. Other migrants are said to be sold outright to employers.

"In some circumstances, it can appear like a legitimate transaction but is essentially exploitative," Haslam said. "And it's widespread."

Migrants often "work off" the debt of their sale, Haslam said, and have no chance to negotiate hours or rates or the kind of work they do.

"With no status in the country, the cycle can continue indefinitely, with the migrant re-traded once the employer no longer needs their services," he said.

Libya's borders have long been haunted by smuggling rings that ferry drugs, weapons and migrants through an intricate web of clandestine trading routes. The country's relative wealth, gleaned mainly from its oil industry — providing an annual per capita income of $12,000, the highest in Africa — has ensured its place as a destination for illegal immigrants.

Cleaner. Builder. Farmhand. Prostitute. Domestic servant. Libya's migrant workers, at least 1.5 million strong at the outbreak of last year's warfare, were all of these things, and the country depended heavily on them. Yet they were always viewed as outsiders, necessary for filling jobs that Libyans would not do.

Some, meanwhile, were reviled as drug dealers and participants in a dark underworld of gang violence.

In the end, they stood as exemplars of how Kadafi's focus on sub-Saharan Africa — after numerous scuttled attempts to fit into the Middle East and North Africa — came at the expense of his own people. And resentment grew.

Libya has no legislative framework to protect migrants from abuse and exploitation. In its 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, theU.S. State Departmentranked Libya in the bottom tier, reserved for countries that "do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts" to eliminate human trafficking.

Racially motivated and xenophobic attacks, which occurred frequently before the insurgency, increased vastly over the last year as the country descended into chaos. Rumors swirled throughout Libya — wildly embellished, according to Amnesty International — that Kadafi was flying in mercenaries en masse, with terrifying consequences for the country's black migrant workers.

Recently released undated video shows black Africans held in a cage, surrounded by a mob. They sit, feet tied and hands bound behind their backs. All have the green former Libyan flag stuffed into their mouths. Men shout "dogs" and "God is great" and force them to gnaw on the flags.

The slide of a pistol is pulled back and a gunshot rings out. The men stand up and hop, like an act from a demented circus, in front of their tormentors. Another shot rings out. The video cuts.

"I want to tell the guards that I am not a mercenary," said Mostafa, standing in a courtyard outside his cell. "But I cannot speak Arabic. I cannot express myself to them."

Nearby, other migrants set to weeding a patch of grass, under the eyes of prison guards.

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