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Foreign workers fleeing Libya face uncertain future

Benghazi, Libya, 28 April 2011: "I worked for nine years in Libya as a welder" explains Sheikh Muhammed Moin from Bihar state in India. "Now I have lost all my possessions and when I return home what will I do?" He is just one of more than 2,300 migrant workers from South Asia and Africa who have found shelter in a transition camp in Benghazi after fleeing the fighting in Misrata.

Sheikh Muhammed Moin, Benghazi
Sheikh Muhammed Moin, Benghazi.
Photo : EC/ECHO/Mathias Eick

Adam from Lagos is another survivor of the fighting in Misrata, having been able to board one of the ships evacuating foreigners from the embattled coastal town with his wife and other 18 Nigerians. "The shelling was so bad in our area of town that we stayed indoors for days" he explains. "Then one of my friends went outside find food but met anti-Qaddafi fighters who took us to the port from where we were able to get a ship to Benghazi."

International aid

For some two weeks now, international aid organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Turkish Red Crescent and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have chartered several ships to evacuate as many migrant workers and injured civilians as possible. They also delivered more than 1,500 tons of medical supplies. The European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) has provided €40 million for humanitarian assistance including funds for the evacuation of migrant workers. EU Member States have also contributed funding as well as charter planes and other in-kind assistance, bringing the total of EU humanitarian assistance close to over €100 million.
At times, shells were landing near or in the port of Misrata as the evacuation process was underway. "We could hear the shooting and the booms of the fighting" recalls Mathi, a 50-year old worker from Niger. "We were stuck at the port for days with little food and water".

A long journey ahead

Transit camp, Benghazi 27 April 2011
Transit camp, Benghazi 27 April 2011
Photo : EC/ECHO/Mathias Eick

The first stop for workers such as Mathi on their long odyssey back home to Niger is a transit camp in down-town Benghazi run by the Libyan Red Crescent. Dr. Ahmed Baitelmal, a teacher at the local university and 50 young volunteers have been struggling to provide basic necessities to the refugees at a construction site. "At the beginning we were able to cope with the influx but with over 2,500 people here we are starting to reach the limits of our capacity" Dr Ahmed explains. Another ship with an additional 1000 refugees from Misrata arrived on the morning of 28 April.

Additional assistance is being provided by the ICRC and the Turkish Red Crescent which has set up additional tents to cope with the increasing influx of evacuees. IOM is organizing the repatriation of the migrant workers to their home countries but logistical challenges such as transport across the border to Egypt and the chartering of planes for transport onwards mean that more refugees are arriving then departing. "Most of our current camp inhabitants are from Niger and they also often do not have proper documentation to travel onwards which is holding up the process" Dr Ahmed explains. Some of the migrant workers are also fearful of the Libyan population rumors have circulated for weeks that Qaddafi has recruited thousands of Africans as mercenaries to combat the uprising against his regime.

On Tuesday 26 April, some 550 migrant workers were taken to the Egyptian border, the second leg of their arduous trip that will see them return home.

But there are also those who, despite the crisis, want to remain in Libya. Dr. Ahmed, a veterinarian who has spent more than 15 years in Libya, is one of a handful of Iraqis at the camp who would rather stay than return to their own country. "Even if I wanted to leave, I can't" he explained. "My only son is still in Misrata and I will not go anywhere before I can hold him in my arms again".

Mathias Eick
ECHO Regional Information Officer