Since forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi began violently cracking down on the popular uprising weeks ago, many of Libya’s migrant workforce attempted to flee the country. Of Libya’s estimated 2.5 million foreign workers, the United Nations estimates that at least 200,000 workers have fled the country since the fighting began—and that number is expected to double. Thousands of workers are congregating at Libya’s border with Egypt, Tunisia and along its port towns, creating a humanitarian crisis where shelter, food, sanitation and transportation is desperately needed. Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat speaks with migrant workers in the port town of Benghazi and to Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Right Watch. Special thanks to videographer Yusuf Misdaq, who contributed to this report. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We go back to Libya with Anjali Kamat, as she spoke to migrants desperately trying to leave Libya.
ANJALI KAMAT: I’m standing at the port in Benghazi. Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of foreign workers have been fleeing Libya from here. Today, the Greek cruise ship behind me is leaving for Syria. They’re taking about 930 workers back home. But hundreds of workers still remain.
KAMAL MOUSSA: My name is Kamal Moussa. I’m the coordinator for the evacuation of the foreign people who want to leave. But we have some nationalities that are stuck here, like Somalis, Bangladeshi and people from Ethiopia, Ghana. These people are — it seems to me like nobody wants them, or — we are taking care of them. We’re feeding them. We’re giving them a roof. But for how long, I don’t know.
ANJALI KAMAT: A few hundred of the people here are from the war-torn countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. They’re terrified of staying in Libya after the spike in anti-African violence in the past few weeks, but they can’t go back to their homelands.
ARMIYASTULU BALCHA: My name is Armiyastulu. I’m from Ethiopia. We are under the shadow of poverty. And some people, they have political problem. So, we are staying here.
ANJALI KAMAT: Describe the living situation here. And how many people are here?
ARMIYASTULU BALCHA: I think there are maybe 300 peoples, all of them, 340 peoples. We are living here — for myself, I have seven days here. So, sometimes the Libyan person that took us — it’s just the last day today. If somebody does not solve our problems, they tell us to go outside. So, we are so afraid.
ANJALI KAMAT: While hundreds of foreign workers remain at the port waiting for an opportunity to leave, many thousands more are stuck at Libya’s border crossings into Egypt and Tunisia. We spoke to group of fleeing migrants at the Salum crossing between Egypt and Libya.
ADDO ALEXMANN: My name is Addo Alexmann. I come from Ghana. I was working, and the crisis came in. So, we had to run for our lives. Urgently, we have to leave Libya to Egypt to find our way to our various countries.
ASANTE JONNY: My name is Asante Jonny. I’m from Ghana.
ANJALI KAMAT: Can I ask you, did you have any problems in Libya before this?
ASANTE JONNY: Not at all. I have no problem. Only this crisis.
ANJALI KAMAT: We hear a lot of stories in the media about the mercenaries that Gaddafi used, and some people say they were sub-Saharan Africans. What danger did you feel you were in? You’re not Libyan. What was your greatest fear?
ASANTE JONNY: They hate blacks now. So, when you go to town to buy something like food, you take taxi in and out. If not, if you make attempt to walk in town, I’m going to say, you’ll be killed.
ADDO ALEXMANN: They shot my very best friend. We were three. They shot one. I left all my friends there, right now as I’m sitting here.
ASANTE JONNY: Yeah, one guy from Cameroon, he’s a Rastaman. He got dreadlocks. They killed him.
ANJALI KAMAT: So, how soon do you expect to leave here?
ASANTE JONNY: Even right now, I will be much appreciated to quit from this place, from this hell.
ANJALI KAMAT: Human Rights Watch has been here in Libya tracking the situation of migrant workers and suspected mercenaries. We spoke to Peter Bouckaert. He’s the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
PETER BOUCKAERT: I think the whole story of the African mercenaries in Libya should be a case study for journalism schools all across the United States, because it’s a prime example of irresponsible reporting and just lazy reporting. You know, rather than going out and investigating these incidents and whether they’re true, these rumors, Western journalists from very reputable publications just published the rumors as true. And they talked about African men running wild, raping women and all of these things, which is just about as racist a myth as you can get.
ANJALI KAMAT: Can you say a little bit about who the mercenaries actually are?
PETER BOUCKAERT: Certainly, it’s possible that Gaddafi used African mercenaries, because Gaddafi has been involved in training and financing and arming rebel groups around Africa. He’s been very involved in the Chadian civil war, and he’s been involved in the conflict in Darfur, where he’s been financing some rebel factions just to have a role around the negotiation table. So he does have the capacity not to go recruit African mercenaries, but to use the groups that he’s already training and financing. And it’s possible that some of those fighters have been mobilized around Tripoli or even in the east. But before we jump to that conclusion, we should investigate. And for the moment, all of the cases we have investigated in the east, these allegations have turned out not to be true.
ANJALI KAMAT: We asked a representative of the Libyan revolutionaries if they’re doing anything to stem this tide of populist rage against anyone perceived to be from sub-Saharan Africa.
ABDEL HAFIZ GHOQA: [translated] In the beginning of the revolution, the first couple days of the revolution, you understand, the level of rage within the people was very high, and we worked very hard to safeguard those African workers and protected them from being attacked in any way. We put them in safe places where now things have calmed down, and I don’t think there is any threat.
AMAL BOUGAIGIS: I am Amal Bougaigis. No one is killing anybody from these people. The people are organized now, and they understand, and they bring these people to the court. And in the court, they investigate these people, and they are doing their business. Some people, we are not sure if we are this way or this way. Also they are here. But when we are sure somebody’s innocent, they release them immediately.
PETER BOUCKAERT: I’m not going to say we’re satisfied with some of their actions. I mean, we do feel that they continue to detain a lot of people who are clearly innocent and who should be released, but at least they have allowed us access. And I do think that they’re sincere in trying to resolve some of these issues, because a lot of the people involved in this revolution are human rights activists, they’re lawyers, and they’re people who themselves were imprisoned at some stage. So, they are — they recognize the importance of respecting human rights, and this revolution is very much about changing that culture of abuse and repression.
ANJALI KAMAT: What’s the number of migrant workers in Libya?
PETER BOUCKAERT: If you count up all of the non-Libyans working in Libya, you’re probably talking in the very high hundreds of thousands, and probably the millions. There’s hundreds of thousands of Africans who come here to work in menial labor, and then there’s many Asians who come to work in the service industries. This really, like many countries in the Middle East, is a country where most of the labor is performed by migrant laborers.
ANJALI KAMAT: Back at the Egyptian border, we met a large group of migrant workers from Bangladesh who have spent several nights at the crossing, waiting to be evacuated by their government.
MOHAMMAD SUHAIL: My name is Mohammad Suhail. My country, Bangladesh.
ANJALI KAMAT: How many days have Bangladeshis been here for?
MOHAMMAD SUHAIL: Maybe 10 days.
ANJALI KAMAT: You’ve been waiting at the Egyptian border for 10 days?
MOHAMMAD SUHAIL: Yeah, for 10 days, 10 days. Egyptian border, is coming 10 days.
ANJALI KAMAT: How many from Bangladeshis are here?
MOHAMMAD SUHAIL: Three thousand Bangladeshis have now, people.
ANJALI KAMAT: And you come — are you coming — which city in Libya are you coming from?
MOHAMMAD SUHAIL: I come from Benghazi, Boustead Company, Singapore.
ANJALI KAMAT: What do you do? What does the company do?
MOHAMMAD SUHAIL: Company, construction work.
PETER BOUCKAERT: We’ve seen very little response from the Bangladeshi government. And it’s really a question of resources for some of these countries. China is now a relatively wealthy country and can organize. They can lease a Greek cruise ship to come here and take away tens of thousands of workers. It’s much more different — difficult for the Bangladeshi government. The international community has an obligation to help evacuate the Bangladeshis, as well as the Africans. And it’s a real tragedy that the Africans who are the most vulnerable in Libya right now, who are literally being chased in the street, who have, in some cases, been lynched and killed, and who have really gone through a very tragic experience, are the ones left on the dock day after day after day, so desperate that they’re trying to jump onto ships as they leave the harbor. And they get pulled off and beaten.
ANJALI KAMAT: Despite the horrific circumstances of their exodus from Libya, some of the fleeing workers from Ghana did express their empathy with the broader struggle of the Libyan revolutionaries.
ASANTE JONNY: What I know is, everybody likes freedom. So, in this world, democracy is the best rule in this hour, this world, in this world. So, as they started this, I was not annoyed on it, because in my country, Ghana, we are from a democratic country.
GHANAIAN MIGRANT WORKER: In our country, we don’t have money. Because of money that we came to Libya. We don’t have money. So, if they receive democracy and this country will be free, we will be happy.
ANJALI KAMAT: For Democracy Now!, I’m Anjali Kamat, with Yusuf Misdaq, in Benghazi, Libya.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as move from Libya to issues here at home involving public media.