Sub-Saharan Migrants in Libya Face Backlash
Gaddafi Ratchets Back Pan-African Policies
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 11, 2004; Page A24
TRIPOLI, Libya -- Maxim
Kwadwo set up his sales cart with cold cream and hair oil in a narrow
alley in the decayed old city of Tripoli to avoid the competition on
the bigger streets nearby. A group of young Libyans came by and
complained that he was making it hard for pedestrians to pass. They
called him obscene names, slapped him and told him to go back to Ghana.
who has lived in Libya for less than a year, said the abuse was not
unusual. "We are worse than dogs to the Libyans. If we were slaves,
they would treat us better," he said on a recent day as he gathered up
his jars, scattered in the muddy alley.
It was a brief sample of the tensions over one of
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's international experiments. During the
1990s, in the name of African unity, Gaddafi opened the borders to tens
of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans to live and work in Libya. For the
past four years, resentment over the policy has led to occasional riots
and frequent bitter confrontations between the immigrants and Libyans.
In effect, the problems mark the end of an officially ordained dream.
Last month participants at an African Union meeting in
Libya's coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi's home town, rejected his
proposal for a continent-wide army. A few days later, the General
People's Congress, a consultative assembly that meets annually,
ratified laws to restrict immigration and to expatriate Africans and
other immigrants who live in Libya but have no steady jobs.
"You have work, you stay. You don't, you go home," said Giuma Abulkher, a government spokesman. "There will be strict controls."
The closed door is part of a shift in Libyan
priorities. After decades of presenting himself first as a leader of
the Arab world and then the African continent, Gaddafi has turned to
the West. He is giving up chemical and nuclear weapons programs and
declared that Libya would no longer support rebel movements across the
globe. The United States is moving to restore diplomatic and trade
relations cut off during decades of hostilities. Libya plans to
privatize its state-dominated economy.
Shutting out other Africans will probably prove
popular. In a closed, politically fearful society, opposition to
Gaddafi's immigration policy is one of the few outward signs of
discontent with his government. While Libyans are usually reluctant to
openly discuss such issues as democracy, succession and economic
policy, the immigration question provides a vent for complaints that
quickly spill over into expressions of general unhappiness.
"It's about time. How can we have all these poor people
here when we are poor ourselves?" said Osama Tayeb, a tout at a chaotic
taxi stand in the old city. "First we help revolutionaries everywhere,
then we give Libya to the Africans. Enough of this. Libya for the
Mohammed Mabrouk, a waiter, blamed immigrants for a
wide variety of societal problems -- crime, prostitution, dirty
streets. "Look, they get away with everything. We could not touch our
African brothers. They bring drugs, they smuggle people. We don't need
this," he said.
Just over three years ago, resentment boiled over into
violence. Libyans attacked African immigrants in several cities and
killed as many as 130. Thousands of foreigners fled to their home
countries carrying horrific tales of stabbings, shootings, beatings and
robberies. Libyan officials, who said the violence was between African
gangs, deported 6,000 Nigerians and 3,000 Ghanaians.
About 600,000 sub-Saharan Africans are estimated to
live among Libya's population of 5.5 million. They were lured by a
relatively stable currency and jobs that many Libyans, in their highly
socialist economy, decline to do. They sweep streets, work in
restaurants and peddle a dizzying collection of merchandise --
cosmetics, pirated recorded music, clothes and secondhand auto parts.
Raggedy men selling single articles of clothing and knit caps stand in
line inside an arched stone gateway to the old city.
Their headdresses and wool or cotton robes indicate
origins across a wide swath of Africa: Nigeria, Ghana, Chad, Mali,
Somalia, Sudan and Congo. Some of the migrants come to make the
perilous journey to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. Last summer,
200 Africans traveling to Italy by fishing boat drowned when their
rickety craft capsized. During peak summer season last year, as many as
2,600 Africans arrived each month by boat on the Italian island of
Lampedusa, an isolated stop between Libya and Sicily.
The influx prompted Italian officials to press Libya to
stem the flow. The two countries agreed to exchange information to
combat the migration, but Gaddafi balked at letting the Italians enter
Libyan waters to intercept boats at sea.
Libya periodically announces roundups of migrants
headed for Italy. Last week, Libya extradited an Eritrean woman known
as Madame Gennet to Italy for allegedly smuggling 500 people into Italy
last summer. Police also recently said they deported 200 Somalis who
were preparing for a Mediterranean passage north.
African migrants speculate that the withdrawal of
Libya's welcome will cause a spike in the number of people making the
trip by boat next summer. "We are trapped. Life here is not going to
get better, and no one wants to go back across the Sahara to his home,"
said Harbi Abdulahi, a Somali customer at the Barber Boss hair salon
inside a little nook in the old city. "I think Africans may try to take
any risk to get to Italy."
Badou Zaituni, a shoe repairman from Sudan, said he has
lived in Libya for eight years and has grown fearful of his future. "A
Libyan comes and asks me for money. I don't dare say no. The police
will do nothing for us. We are surrounded by hate," he said.
Kwadwo, 19, said he would hang on and try to save money
to get to Italy. He had come to Libya on the heels of his older
brother, who works in a car repair shop. He traveled by bus across the
vast Libyan desert, sometimes spending hours waiting under the hot sun
as the driver made a series of repairs. "I almost fainted," he said. "I
don't want to face that again, and there is little good work in Ghana."
Kwadwo said he thought it would cost him $1,000 to find a place on a boat heading north.
"Why not?" he said. "If I make it, I can send money
home and help my family. If I don't, well, my life is not worth much as
it is. I thought I could do something in Libya. If I can't do it here,
I will have to try somewhere else. What do you know about Spain?"