African migrants become easy target for racist violence in Libya

24 February 2011

Portrait of Dr Hein De Haas

by Dr Hein De Haas
Co-Director and James Martin Fellow, International Migration Institute

Dr Hein De Haas is Associate Professor in Migration Studies, Oxford Department of International Development and Professor of Migration and Development, Maastricht University. Hein De Haas' research focuses on the linkages between migration and broad...

Migration
© Unknown

Who cares about African migrants in Egypt? Now that Gaddafi is killing and bombing his own people, Western countries and companies are trying to get their citizens out of Libya. Also Egypt and Turkey are facilitating the return of the thousands of migrants living in Libya by chartering flights and opening land borders. Look here for a report from Al Jazeera about returning Egyptians.

But why is nobody concerned about the plight of sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya? As victims of racism and ruthless exploitation, they are Libya's most vulnerable immigrant population, and their home country governments do not give them any support.

Since the news had surfaced that Gaddafi has allegedly hired 'black' mercenaries to kill people, their situation has become outright dangerous. There is a huge danger that there will soon be a day of reckoning for African migrants, and the arbitrary violence has possibly started already (see this video for instance).

As one commentator mentioned "Where is the proof that this people are mercenaries and not just normal Black people?" Are Black Libyans or Black immigrants in Libya safe from wrong accusations? The answer is "no". Sadly, innocent African migrants living in Libya have become an easy target for angry mobs.

That scapegoating migrants is also part of official strategies became clear during Sunday's speech by Gaddafi's son, Saif Al Islam, on national Libyan television. As is common for threatened dictators, Saif's speech was full of conspiracy theory ? blaming usual suspects such as imperialists, the BBC and Al Jazeera (!) ? but also immigrants. He mentioned that he and his daddy will fight until the last bullet. An ominous sign, showing how mad Gaddafi is ? and that he might not refrain from further mass killings to take revenge on the people who have dared to challenge his rule ? 'After me, the deluge'.

What makes the situation particularly dangerous are Gaddafi's insinuations that foreigners are to blame for the violence and mass killings. This put the tens or hundreds of thousands of Egyptian and sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya at great risk.

Most people as well as the media seem to think that most African migrants use Libya as a transit country on their way to Europe. Gaddafi has shrewdly exploited largely unfounded European fears of an African invasion to position himself as a partner in the so-called 'fight against illegal immigration' ? which has earned him billions of dollars in bilateral deals, and helped him to regain respectability.

Gaddafi has repeatedly threatened to open the migration floodgates if he does not get more support, and a few days ago he also warned European governments that they will be flooded with migrants if they keep on supporting protesters. European governments seem to be afraid of the immigration consequences of North African instability, and this is also one of the factors that seems to have driven their staunch support for North African despots over the past decades.

In fact, politicians and the media hugely exaggerate the scale of illegal migration from Africa to Europe. According to the best available estimates, only a few tens of thousands of migrants cross the Mediterranean illegally by boat each year, representing only 1 to 2 percent of total immigration to Europe.

Leaving aside the fact that fear of an African 'invasion' is entirely unfounded, what Gaddafi has been much more keen to hide is that Libya is an important migration destination in its own right, and that his guest worker policies are the main explanation behind a massive increase in the number of African workers in Libya. Most African migrants have come from countries such as Niger, Chad and elsewhere in West Africa to work as low-paid labourers in the oil industry, construction, agriculture and service sectors. African workers tend to do the most dangerous and dirty jobs.

Not many people know that most African migrants do not use Libya as a passage to Europe, but that they have come to Libya as part of Gaddafi's guest worker schemes or as illegal labour migrants. According to several estimates, Libya hosts 2 to 2.5 million immigrants, representing 25 to 30 percent of its total population. This includes about half a million Egyptians; several tens of thousands of Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians; and 1 to 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans (for further information see 'The Myth of Invasion').

Since the 1990s, Gaddafi has actively stimulated immigration from sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger as part of his 'pan-African' policies. These immigrants from extremely poor countries were easier to exploit than Arab workers. From 2000 onwards, violent clashes between Libyans and African workers led to the street killings of dozens of sub-Saharan migrants, who were routinely blamed for rising crime, disease and social tensions.

In an apparent attempt to respond to growing domestic racism, the Libyan regime hardened its policies towards African immigrants. Measures included lengthy and arbitrary detention of immigrants in poor conditions in prisons and camps, physical abuse, and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of immigrants. Gaddafi has been happy to conclude agreements with Italy and other European states to violently crack down on immigration in exchange for lucrative trade and arms deals. This has led to blatant violation of international refugee law. In many ways, it has served European countries well that Libya has not signed the Geneva refugee convention and is not concerned about human rights at all.

Of course this repression has not stopped migration, but mainly facilitated exploitation of African migrants in Libya, whose position became even more vulnerable. While the Gaddafi regime has tried to put the blame on immigrants for all sorts of social problems, their cheap labour force has served Libya very well economically.

According to several sources, Gaddafi has now hired hundreds of thousands of mercenaries from Chad and other poor sub-Saharan countries to do the actual killings. This is a truly diabolic move ? as the Gaddafi clan now tries to blame the killings on the 'foreign element' who were hired by him in the first place. This might fuel racist violence and further destabilisation of the country.

It is not clear to what extent these mercenaries have been recruited among migrants or directly in the origin countries. However, irrespective of their background, the apparent presence of black African mercenaries has certainly only fuelled already present racist feelings towards African immigrants.

African immigrants are now linked to state-orchestrated violence and mass killings, and we may therefore fear the worst about the violent backlash that may follow particularly after Gaddafi is ousted ? they will be an easy target for mass lynching that may follow. And in the unlikely case Gaddafi manages to cling on to power, African migrants are equally likely to be scapegoated and massacred.

Let's hope that Gaddafi's devilish tactics to put the blame on foreigners and immigrants won't work ? and that Libyans will hold Gaddafi entirely responsible for these mass killings. However, there is a huge danger that the violence might increasingly turn against the hundreds of thousands of innocent and hard-working African immigrants living in Libya.

European governments, which have been so keen to support Gaddafi and have turned a blind eye to the massive human rights abuses in return for economic benefits, have no right to abuse unjustified fears concerning an immigrant invasion - which are fuelled by their own anti-immigrant rhetoric - to deny refugees inside and from Libya their rights to protection from violence and death.