Migrant workers fleeing Libya vow not to return

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 14 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Men from Mali, who recently fled from the uprising in Libya, chant slogans as they demonstrate for better conditions in their refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, Saturday, March 12, 2011. More than 250,000 migrant workers have left Libya for neighboring countries, primarily Tunisia and Egypt, in the past three weeks.

Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press

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.

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.

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