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Libya: Protecting Amazigh, Toubou, and migrants alike

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I am deeply disturbed to find myself confronted with a widespread and flagrant disregard for the basic human rights of Libya’s illegal migrant workers.

Sara ElGaddari
21 June 2012

So, the past week has witnessed the detention of four International Criminal Court (ICC) envoys in Zintan; an RPG attack on a British diplomatic convoy in Benghazi; the seizure of Tripoli International airport by a Zintani militia and the (at least anticipated) postponement of national elections to 7 July.

In the midst of this seemingly interminable chaos I remind myself of the end goals of this fraught transition - to secure a democratically based government, and in so doing, lay the foundations for a stable and secure Libyan society for our future generations.

I am deeply disturbed, however, to find myself confronted with a widespread and flagrant disregard for the basic human rights of Libya’s illegal migrant workers. Throughout Libya, and exemplified recently in Gharyan; in a former Gaddafi compound, thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants are being held incommunicado in hot tin shacks 24 hours a day, without basic working sanitary facilities . Their families, scattered around Tripoli and elsewhere, do not know what has happened to them and without income, are left destitute in the urban sprawls of the coast.

Gaddafi’s Libya, he insisted, was an African one – a deliberately ambiguous rhetoric that resulted in a wide-scale migration of Africans across the Sahara and into Libya. It has been estimated that these illegal migrants, including those from neighbouring Egypt and other countries of the Maghreb, have increased the population statistics by more 2 million people over the past four decades. These migrants, without any official paperwork to reside and seek employment in Libya, traditionally fill the thousands of low-skilled, low-paying jobs that many Libyans would say are beneath them.

However (in)accurate this figure may be, it has helped fuel a negative and racist attitude to illegal migrants in the country. These negative perceptions and attitudes are further exacerbated by the structural incapacity of the interim government to handle and process migrants in any effective way. In lieu of a plan, it is left to the militias to detain and indefinitely detain human beings in often terrible conditions.

Meanwhile, as one of the last Gaddafi strongholds, the town of Tawergha is literally being wiped off the face of the map and its black population have been forcibly removed, the NTC remains silent about the ‘cleansing’ of the town; and the leadership fails to explicitly speak out against militia vigilantism and to protect yet another vulnerable group.

In similarity to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, these groups (citizens and non-citizens alike) have long contributed to the complex social and cultural fabric of the country. Whilst the Amazigh activists are increasingly vocal in Libya, the fight for better treatment and, where legally entitled, equal civil rights by groups such as the Toubou in Kufra and Sabha is also ongoing. Like the Amazigh, the people of Tawergha, Sabha and the migrant labourers, are all part of a vulnerable civilian population in need of urgent state protection. 

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