Tripoli, Libya – As wealthier nations send boats and planes to rescue their citizens from the violence in Libya, a new refugee crisis is taking shape on the outskirts of Tripoli, where thousands of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa have been trapped with scant food and water, no international aid and little hope of escape.
The migrants — many of them illegal immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria who have long constituted an impoverished underclass in Libya — live amid piles of garbage, sleep in makeshift tents of blankets strung from fences and trees, and breathe fumes from a trench of excrement dividing their camp from the parking lot of Tripoli’s airport.
For dinner on Monday night two men killed a scrawny, half-plucked chicken by dunking it in water boiled on a garbage fire, then hacked it apart with a dull knife and cooked it over an open fire. Some residents of the camp are as young as Essem Ighalo, 9 days old, who arrived on his second day of life and has yet to see a doctor. Many refugees said they had seen deaths from hunger and disease every night.
The airport refugees, along with tens of thousands of other African migrants lucky enough to make it across the border to Tunisia, are the most desperate contingent of a vast exodus that has already sent almost 200,000 foreigners fleeing the country since the outbreak of the popular revolt against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi nearly three weeks ago.
Dark-skinned Africans say the Libyan war has caught them in a vise. The heavily armed police and militia forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi who guard checkpoints along the roads around the capital rob them of their money, possessions and cellphone chips, the migrants say. And the Libyans who oppose Colonel Qaddafi lash out at the African migrants because they look like the dark-skinned mercenaries many here say the Libyan leader has recruited to crush the uprising.
“Qaddafi has brought African soldiers to kill some of them, so if they see black people they beat them,” said Samson Adda, 31, who said residents of Zawiyah, a rebellious city, had beaten him so badly that he could no longer walk.
Sub-Saharan Africans make up a vast majority of the estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants among Libya’s population of 6.5 million, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many were desperately poor people made even more so by investments of up to $1,000 each to pay smugglers to bring them across Libya’s southern border for a chance at better work in its oil economy.
Their flight has emptied the streets of thousands of day laborers who played a crucial, if largely unheralded, role in sustaining Libya’s economy. Their absence has played a role in halting construction projects that had been rising across the skyline.
They are trapped in part because most lack passports or other documents necessary to board a plane or cross the border. Few can afford a plane ticket. They say they are afraid to leave the airport or try their luck on the roads to the border for fear of assaults by Libyan citizens or at militia checkpoints.
They complain bitterly of betrayal by their home governments, which have failed to help evacuate them even as Egyptian, Bangladeshi and Chinese migrant workers who crowded the airport a week ago have found a way out.
And international aid workers, who have raced to minister to the hundreds of thousands camped on the borders, say the migrants trapped at the airport remain beyond their reach. The Libyan government’s tight security and the threat of violence on the streets of Tripoli have apparently prevented any international aid groups from reaching the makeshift camps.
“We are operating out of Benghazi,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy of the International Organization for Migration, referring to the eastern Libyan city that is the headquarters of the rebellion. “But unfortunately because of the conditions we can’t help them out of Tripoli.”
The outbreak of violence in Tripoli around Feb. 20 sent migrants of all kinds fleeing for the airport. Until recently, desperate hordes of all nationalities were sleeping packed together on the floors of the terminals or in the fields and parking lots outside. Guards with whips and clubs beat them back to clear the entrance.
Despite Colonel Qaddafi’s brotherly pan-African rhetoric, racial xenophobia is common here. Many Libyans, ethnically Arab, look down on Chinese, Bangladeshis and darker-skinned Africans, in that order. Many African refugees here and in the camps on the Tunisian border say Libyans often addressed them as “abd,” or slave.
“Even if someone stabs you with a knife and you go to the police to report it, they won’t do anything about it,” said Paul Eke, 34, a Nigerian who was camped out at the Tunisian border, displaying a mangled arm as evidence of his firsthand experience. “In the hospitals, no one will care for you. They just don’t like blacks.”
But many said it was the presence of mercenaries from other African countries that made the situation unbearable. “Qaddafi brought the mercenaries who are black, so the people are chasing us,” one 30-year-old Nigerian said.
Perhaps as many as 100,000 refugees, most of them sub-Saharan Africans, have made it to the Tunisian camps, where groups like the Red Crescent, the Muslim counterpart to the Red Cross, care for the sick. The United States has lent planes to fly Egyptian refugees home from Tunisia.
But the crowds left at the airport, now almost exclusively African, have no such support. Some have been there for two weeks or more.
Several said that someone — perhaps with a local charity, perhaps with the Libyan government — had given them each a biscuit. On Monday refugees holding bottles lined up at the back of a tanker truck dispensing water.
But an exploitative economy has also sprung up. A group of burly, well-dressed men stood by a sport utility vehicle in the parking lot holding thick stacks of dollars, euros and Libyan dinars and offering to change money at usurious rates.
Many of the workers had been paid in foreign currency but need to change it to buy a Coke, a candy bar, or perhaps an emaciated chicken from the vendors who have turned up to profit from the camps. Several refugees said a live chicken cost about $8 in the camp, more than four times what it might have cost before the crisis.
Bathing is another problem. A Ghanaian woman said angrily that she had not washed in nine days.
“Some women try to wash naked in the bushes,” a Nigerian man said. “It is an abomination.”
But many said the worst indignity was being robbed of their few possessions either by soldiers with machine guns or by young civilians carrying knives.
“The most painful thing is this: A lot of people buy things, for more than two years they are gathering their own money to keep their own things that they will take to Nigeria,” the Nigerian man said. “But the little things that you have — like tele, plasma, clothes, shoes, bags, all your assets — they take everything.”
Another man added: “Just imagine: We are poor people, and they are robbing us. They are taking our dinars, our euros, our pounds. They are taking our mobile phones and SIM cards.”
The loss of the cellphones — the Libyan government is confiscating them apparently to prevent the circulation of cellphone pictures of the unrest — means that many of the refugees have been unable to tell their families they are alive, several said.
Many said that after waiting days for people from their embassies to help arrange their travel papers, they had given up hope in their home countries.
“We are somebody and we are from somewhere,” said Abru Razak, 35, a Nigerian with two daughters, 2 and 5, at the airport. “Even when we get into the airport they are beating us and pushing us. We are dying. Tell the United Nations they should get us away from here — to anywhere, just to save our lives.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli and Scott Sayare from Ras Adjir border crossing, Tunisia.