As the world watches Moammar Gaddafi’s regime seemingly fall to the hands of rebel forces, talks of a future Libya after 42 years of dictatorship are aplenty. While many are excited about the changes that lie ahead, others worry that the country’s black African migrants may see racism and discrimination flourish.
Human Rights Watch said it is “concerned about attacks against dark-skinned Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans in Libya now because many people accuse them of having fought for Gaddafi as mercenaries, even though they are from there or have spent many years in Libya.”
Earlier this year, Dr. Hein de Haas, a senior research fellow at the Immigration Migration Institute at Oxford University, expressed similar sentiments to Al Jazeera. “African immigrants are now linked to state-orchestrated violence and mass killings, and we may therefore fear the worst about the violent backlash that may follow particularly after Gaddafi is ousted,” he said.
Haas was referring to the over 1.5 million black African migrant workers, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, who have migrated to the oil-rich nation in search of better jobs and more money in construction, oil production and agriculture.
However, when many of these migrants arrive in Libya, they find that some of their Arab compatriots are less than welcoming. Libya, like the United States, has a complicated racial history that is peppered with slavery, resentment of Gaddafi’s support of pan-Africanism and financial aid to sub-Saharan nations and a present day culture that associates African migrants with the Gaddafi regime.
Just this spring, news reports surfaced that Gaddafi had hired black mercenaries from Chad and Niger to help fight anti-government insurgents. Those reports allegedly reignited a centuries-old beef between black Africans and Arabs in the North African nation, leading to a rash of violence and attacks on black African migrants and dark-skinned Libyans. Many say these attacks were motivated by false assumptions.
Na’eem Jeenah, director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, told the Inter Press Service earlier this year, “Against this background, one needs to be a little wary of the accusations of ‘African mercenaries’ or even ‘Black African mercenaries’ that have been bandied around. Certainly, Gaddafi has used, in the past, mercenaries from other parts of Africa, and our information is that some of these are likely involved in the current situation on Gaddafi’s side,” but that doesn’t mean all of the countries black Africans should be considered in this category.
However, these racial tensions are not new.
According to United Nations Watch, since at least 1998, the United Nations has been monitoring racial and ethnic “acts of discrimination” against migrant workers in the country. It wasn’t until 2000 when migrant workers from Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Nigeria were said to be victims of street killings after state sponsored media reports pointed to this population for rising crime rates of drug trafficking and alcohol.
For those actions, in 2004, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination cited Libya for discrimination against dark-skinned and black African migrants and refugees and violating an article of the International Convention, though the country denied the charges. The country was asked to monitor the situation more closely and review the committee’s assessment.
Still, Human Rights Watch and others continued to report on attacks against migrant workers, with the issue once again being brought up in February 2010 at the U.N. Humans Rights Council and gaining international attention after the uprisings against Gaddafi increased.
Jean Philippe Chauzy, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, a group that helps black Africans safely leave the region, said the rebellion has “exasperated the stigmatization and rapid xenophobia” that has always plagued Libya. He believes the country’s black Africans, and other ethnic groups facing frustration and potential violence, will continue to leave as the country tries to define it’s future.
“They’re not employed, they’re not paid. The prices of necessity has increased tremendously,” he said. “If you add to that the stigmatization that is associated to those African migrants, the violence or sector violence. That’s too many push factors, migrants are leaving.”
But, Chauzy said, it’s not all bad news. “The Libyan economy, functions, thanks to those migrants from Africa. I suspect that once the country stabilizes, that they’ll come back.”