SHOUSHA CAMP, Tunisia — Thousands of African and Asian migrant workers who fled Libya after years of toil are going home with empty pockets and many vow never to return.
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Huddling in a sand-swept Tunisian transit camp near the border with Libya, laborers said they were often cheated by their Libyan bosses even before they were stripped of their remaining cash on their way out of the country.
Those at Shousha Camp are among hundreds of thousands of foreign workers believed to have left Libya since the start of the uprising against Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi a month ago.
Their chaotic exodus highlights oil-rich Libya’s often problematic role as a regional magnet for migrant workers. In the past, analysts say, Gadhafi often invited or expelled migrants in line with his political needs.
Data is sketchy, but according to one estimate, as many as 2.5 million foreigners – on par with Libya’s own domestic labor force – worked in the North African nation before the current crisis. In recent years, as Libya emerged from crippling international sanctions, the foreigners filled jobs Libyans didn’t want or weren’t trained for, including in construction, oil and health services.
For the most vulnerable Asian and African migrant workers – those who didn’t have the backing of their government or a foreign company or were in Libya illegally – the hasty departure marks the close of a bitter chapter in their lives.
“I am going home with nothing,” said John Adjei, a 33-year-old construction worker from Ghana who had just arrived at the transit camp, waiting to be assigned a tent. In eight years in Libya, he said he was robbed twice, most recently en route to the Tunisian border. As an illegal immigrant, he had no recourse, including against bosses who refused to pay him.
Many Bangladeshis at the camp said they incurred debt to go to Libya, paying on average $5,000 to a local broker for the plane ticket and visa. Now, some said, they don’t know how to pay it back.
After the outbreak of fighting, China, Turkey, Egypt and others evacuated their workers from Libya by air and sea. Workers without outside help, including Bangladeshis and many of the Africans, had to organize their own treks to safety in neighboring countries, mainly Tunisia and Egypt.
More than 260,000 people crossed into Tunisia and Egypt since the start of the fighting, including nearly 100,000 non-Egyptian foreign workers, according to the International Organization for Migration, which is helping to evacuate stranded laborers. Up to 6,000 people continue leave Libya for Tunisia and Egypt every day, the group said.
Many of those who reach Tunisia – the most hazardous route since it leads through Gadhafi-controlled territory – find temporary refuge at the 20,000-capacity Shousha Camp, run by the Tunisian army and international aid groups.
On Saturday, as a sand storm whipped across the camp, thousands of migrants walked around aimlessly in the garbage-strewn tent city, killing time as aid agencies tried to arrange flights home. Many had already been there for several days. Long lines formed for food, water and free three-minute phone calls.
Occasionally, one group would organize a protest to try to speed up the pace of evacuations. On Saturday, several dozen ran up and down the main road next to the camp, shouting “Mali, Mali,” the name of their home country, and waving sticks in the air. Tunisian soldiers watched from the sidelines and the group quickly dispersed.
Many of the workers said they would never have left home had they known what awaited them. Virtually all said they were robbed by pro-Gadhafi forces en route to the border. Most said they were stiffed at times by their Libyan bosses, and some of the Africans said they had been beaten or detained.
Tarun Alam, 22, said his family had sold most of its land in Bangladesh so it could send him to work in Libya. He was promised a salary of $600 a month, or three times what he would make at home. Instead, he was not paid at all on the first job. He quit after three months, found work as a cook and waiter and made between $300 and $400.
Earlier this week, he and several Bangladeshi co-workers left the Libyan capital of Tripoli because their company had shut down due to the fighting, leaving them to fend for themselves. On the way to the border, their bus was stopped by security forces who seized cash and phone cards. Alam said he lost his last $100 and his phone.
Workers from sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps worst off in Libya because many had entered illegally, started arriving in growing numbers at the camp in recent days. Migration officials said it’s impossible to say how many more are on the way, since some might be afraid to make the trip or can’t afford it.
Adjei, the construction worker, said he entered Libya eight years ago through the Sahara Desert, paying smugglers hundreds of dollars. Without proper papers, he said he had no recourse when cheated by his employers.
The Ghanaian said that three years ago, assailants set fire to a small Tripoli apartment he shared with four co-workers and made off with the group’s shared earnings of $14,000. Adjei said he didn’t leave Libya then because he felt he couldn’t go home empty-handed; his income helps support his parents and two high school-age siblings.
In December, he was picked up by police for not having a visa and was taken to prison, sleeping on the ground without a mattress and enduring beatings by the guards. He was released 10 weeks later, after friends managed to collect enough money for bribes. When he came out, the fighting had already started.
En route to Tunisia, Libyan security forces took his remaining $1,200.
Gadhafi, in power since 1969, has in the past used foreign workers for his political objectives.
He has alternately championed pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism, opening and closing Libya to workers from those areas in line with Libya’s orientation at the time. Different groups of workers could suddenly find themselves targeted for deportation, such as thousands of Sudanese expelled in the mid-1990s.
A turning point came in 2003 when Libya accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner that killed 270 people, mostly Americans, over Lockerbie, Scotland. Libya’s change of heart led to a lifting of the sanctions, and in following years, the country moved toward normalizing its relations with the West.
Emerging from its isolation, Libya was eager to build its infrastructure and started bringing in more foreign workers since it didn’t have the needed manpower, said Laurence Hart of the International Organization for Migration.
Hart said that before the fighting, his agency had been trying to work with the Libyan authorities to set up some rules and rights for the foreign workers. While the response was often slow, government officials showed some openness, he said. Some workers were treated well, and others were not, he added.
About half a million foreign workers are still in Libya, a country of 6.5 million, Hart estimated.
It’s not clear if any will eventually return.
Adjei, the construction worker from Ghana, said he would try to build a life in his country, despite the economic difficulties. “I’m very tired of hustling in someone else’s country. I just want to go home and have some peace,” he said.
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