Libya’s Migrant Workers Still Targeted After the Revolution

Reports of ethnic cleansing have surfaced across Libya since the revolution. Moises Saman / Redux

I met Victor, a Nigerian migrant working in Libya, when he was released from prison on the second night of violent protests in Tripoli in February 2011. He was gaunt and emaciated—like a photo negative of a skeleton. All day long, there had been reports on Libyan state television of prisoners rioting and of prisons being overrun 
by rebels who were unleashing rapists, drug addicts, and murderers to wreak havoc upon the peaceful citizens of Tripoli. After Victor was freed, he called his girlfriend, Mercy, our new Nigerian housekeeper. He had nowhere to go and he was afraid, so he came to stay at our house.

I never found out whether Victor was innocent or guilty of a crime. He may very well have been guilty, but he was never officially charged. He had been in prison for more than six months, he said, sleeping on a cold cement floor in a small cell with 70 other men. That night, all of the prisoners had been gathered together and told that dictator Muammar Gaddafi, in his clemency, had decided to pardon them. Before their release, they had been led to shout a chorus of the new loyalist mantra: “Muhammad, Muammar, and Libya!”

As he narrated his tale, a volley of machine-gun fire echoed from Fashloum Street a block away, making us all jump. Victor slammed his fists on the counter passionately and exclaimed, “I don’t know why these Libyan people make war! Gaddafi is merciful man. He is good man. He has let us go! If Libya has civil war, we blacks will suffer most!” That night, I knocked on Mercy’s bedroom door, and gave them two bottles of home-brewed beer to celebrate Victor’s freedom. The next morning he said, “You have treated me like a human being. God bless you.”

Victor was lucky. The next day, the Libyan government was rounding up black men, putting guns in their hands and making them fight. Several of the inmates who had been released with him were picked up. All day long, friends were calling to tell him of someone else who had been taken. Some were forced onto boats to Europe, despite the stormy seas, to drive home the point that chaos in Libya would mean an endless flow of refugees and emigrants to Europe. In March 2011 our gardener, Hassan, called. It was the last time I heard from him. He was on one of those rickety vessels. Did he survive the voyage? I may never know.

When the Gaddafi family’s compounds were finally overrun in August, the world was inundated with nauseating images and video clips, like those of Shweyga Mulla, Hannibal Gaddafi’s Ethiopian slave nanny, who was found on a mattress with infected burns covering her body—wounds from the boiling water Hannibal’s wife had poured over her head. The nanny’s case seemed to prove the exceptional vileness of the Gaddafi family beyond the shadow of doubt. What wasn’t discussed: that in Libya, this kind of treatment of household help is not an exception; it is the rule.

One of my dearest friends in Tripoli was a woman who had lived in Canada for 20 years before eventually returning to Libya. At the time of the revolution, I had known her for more than two years and had come to count on her loyal friendship and to admire her generosity. She was a devout Muslim who faithfully performed her prayers, fasted during Ramadan, paid zakat (tithe), and gave ungrudgingly to beggars when we encountered them in the street. Yet she was not a fundamentalist. She confided to me that she had once told her husband, “I just want to try wine and see what the big deal is.” She tried it, said “What’s the big deal?” and never drank again. She did not follow her faith out of fear or condemn others for their beliefs. With her, I could even raise questions about the existence of God without any anxiety.

A few months before the revolution erupted, I was having dinner with her and some friends, when they began to talk about managing servants. My friend had an Ethiopian maid, and she said that when she hired the girl, she had set out to treat her like a daughter. She provided room and board and took care of all her needs—but after a few weeks, she began to feel like the girl was taking advantage of the situation. After all that had been done for her, she apparently wasn’t working hard enough. To punish her, my charitable, open-minded, enlightened friend locked the maid in a basement room with no light, no food, and no water for three days. Another woman—the British wife of a Libyan doctor—nodded in approbation of my friend’s disciplinary measures. “Yes, that is how you have to deal with these people,” she said. “If you aren’t tough with them, they will always take advantage of you.”

From the time we arrived in 2008 until October 2010, a lively woman from Niger named Amina was our nanny and housekeeper. She would say, “Mommy, you know Libyans are very wicked!” She complained of being slapped and insulted by strangers. Men grabbed her by the hair in the marketplace. In September 2010, she became very lethargic, and oblong purple blotches appeared on her arms and torso. It was AIDS. When I went to the Maltese Clinic to pick up her results, the nurse took me aside and said that by law, she had to report the diagnosis to the authorities. Amina would be detained and taken to an internment camp for migrants with AIDS. The conditions in the camps were abysmal, she said, and Amina would not get treatment, nor would she be deported. She would be confined as in a leper colony until her death. I thanked the nurse for the warning and made plans to get Amina out of Libya. Strangely, she did not want to leave. I had to plead with her until finally she agreed to go. Her husband, Hassan, however refused to go with her for shame of returning penniless to his family.

Libya Italy deports migrants to Libya, where they are held incommunicado in camps. Moises Saman / Redux

Violence against migrants is common in Libya. During my stay there from 2008 until 2011, I heard many stories of migrants being robbed by taxi drivers or beaten by gangs of young men in the streets. Hassan was employed as a street sweeper during the day and worked construction jobs for the government late at night, with a few hours in between to rest. He had not been paid for three months, so Amina begged us to hire him for two days a week to do the gardening. We didn’t have a garden, just a few planters, but we agreed anyway.

One day, I noticed a long scar on the inside of his left arm and asked Amina about it. She said that one night, a couple of years earlier, some Libyan teenagers armed with knives jumped him and demanded his cash. He didn’t have any, but they lacerated his left arm, gouging out part of his vein. When she took him to the government hospital, they took 100 dinar from her, then refused to treat him without a police report. The police refused to make a report unless he paid a bribe. Amina’s employer at the time, a German diplomat, intervened on his behalf. Hassan spent three weeks recovering in the hospital.

I thought of him when I was idling at a stoplight on my way to work one day. Through my windshield, I watched a Libyan man in a black Mercedes toss a bundle of trash—a fast-food bag, wads of used tissues, coffee cups, candy wrappers—out of his car window, at the feet of a black migrant who had just swept that section of road. As a final flourish, the Libyan emptied an ashtray full of cigarette butts in front of the migrant. On the bridge ahead of us stretched a banner with the words: Keep our great country beautiful and clean.

Such harassment is common—a result of the racism endemic to Libyan society. One friend, who lived in Tripoli’s old city, begged me to help her get a visa to the U.S. “I can’t stand it here anymore. The abeed [“slaves” in Arabic] make the place stink.” In September of 2000, 130 sub-Saharan migrants were killed by enraged Libyans who believed that they were responsible for disease, rising crime rates, and cultural deterioration.

On Libya’s street corners, bridges, and traffic circles, migrants wait for any work they can get, holding up paint brushes and shovels as crude advertisements of their skills. As in Europe and America, migrants do work that even unemployed natives are unwilling to do. When the sewer in our Tripoli house backed up—because we had ignorantly clogged it with our American toilet paper—Amina went to the corner where migrants waited for work and found a Malian boy with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. He opened up the sewer cover, got in and started shoveling, ankle deep in unmentionable filth. Roaches skittered across his sandaled toes.

Migration policy in Libya is erratic. One day, migrants might be employed by private citizens, small businesses, the government, foreign corporations, expatriates, or embassies. The next, they could be rounded up en masse. When migrants are arrested, they are taken to deportation camps—detained for months in terrible conditions. Many die before being repatriated. One reason why Italy was against the NATO intervention was due to its dependence on Libya for immigration control. In 2000, Italy and Libya signed a cooperation agreement to combat undocumented migration across the Mediterranean Sea. Italy financed three internment camps in Libya. According to a 2007 report made by the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford, between 2003 and 2004, Italy chartered 50 flights, deporting 5,688 sub-Saharan, Asian, and Arab migrants to Libya, where they were detained in these camps incommunicado.

Despite the dangers of being a migrant in Libya, workers continue to flock there looking for opportunities. Most stay in Libya, though some move on to Europe. Libya is a major immigration corridor to Europe, where demand for cheap labor is high. Industries from agriculture and construction to landscaping, hospitality, even prostitution—which is legal in eight European countries—rely heavily on a steady stream of migrants. Both origin and host countries benefit economically from the arrangement: employers have a plentiful source of cheap labor, while migrants send back wages to their family members at home. According to 2011 World Bank figures, in many developing countries as much as 30 percent of GDP is generated through remittances.

For these reasons, the situation for migrants in Libya is unlikely to change anytime soon. While some people are uncomfortable with the systematic exploitation of migrant labor—and the poor treatment of migrants in Libyan society—none of the governments involved have a real interest in controlling irregular migration. It is too profitable. Meanwhile, many native Libyans—who may choose to remain unemployed rather than work at menial jobs for minimal wages—despise and fear the cultural changes brought by an influx of foreign workers to their communities.

One of the most disturbing results of the Libyan revolution was that it was used as a pretext for ethnic cleansing within the Libyan population. According to Amnesty International, during the revolution, 31,250 dark-skinned Libyan Tuaregs, the entire population of the town of Tawargha, were either killed or forced to flee. There are reports that ethnic cleansing continues all over Libya.

Amina passed away in March 2011, and it is likely that Hassan drowned in the stormy Mediterranean Sea. Mercy and Victor are still unemployed in Nigeria, and may be compelled to reprise the harrowing desert crossing to Libya, to face even greater threats from endemic racism than before. In spite of it all, I still have great hopes for the promise of the Libyan revolution. I believe that Libya has the greatest chance of any of the Arab Spring countries to become a functional democracy—if the countries that supported Gaddafi’s ouster take a more active role in stabilizing the Libyan government and assisting in the development of effective institutions, humane immigration policies, and education before their influence dissipates. Developing respect for human rights requires a cultural revolution, and no military action can bring that about.

A former Arabic linguist, Anna Linvill lived and worked in Libya from 2008 until 2011 doing cultural outreach and teaching music in the American and International schools.