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Tripoli Still A Favourite Destination For African Migrant Workers

By Paul Ejime, PANA, 7 March 2000

Sule Ahmadou from Mauritania and his two comrades sprang to their feet as a car pulled up near the footbridge. The visiting journalist in the vehicle did not betray his profession so the three Sub-Saharan African immigrant workers had mistaken him for a possible employer.

It was 9.30 AM Sunday (4 March) and the drama was at Gurgarech, a residential area west of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, one of the venues of the September 2000 fracas between immigrant African workers and some of their Libyan hosts.

Sule, 41, and his job-seeking friends from Niger and Mali are among the estimated 2.5 million foreigners, most of them illegal immigrants, engaged in menial work, supporting the private sector of the North African country’s oil-rich economy.

Although disappointed that the journalist, who had posed as an employer could not hire them, the comportment of the three job hunters reinforced the feeling that relations between the immigrants and their hosts had returned to normal.

We have no problem. We assemble here to be hired for work, said Sule, a casual worker in a construction firm.

From between 10 and 25 Dinars he makes in a day, Sule sustains himself and saves some money, which he sends periodically to his wife and two children back home in Nouakchott, through travellers. (1.6 USD = 1Dinar).

His story resembles those of other illegal immigrants in Libya, who cite economic hardship in their home countries as the reason for undertaking the hazardous and unpredictable journey through the Sahara desert to Libya in search of work.

Egyptians are said to account for some 1.5 million of the foreigner population in Libya, followed by the Sudanese, with the rest coming mainly from as far as Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, among others.

For his part, Williams Ansah, a 30-year-old Ghanaian, who emigrated to Tripoli two years ago, now has a regular job.

I can say that the situation is normal, he told PANA at the sprawling Souk Al-Thalath industrial area near Gurgarech.

Commenting on the September violence, which claimed several lives and for which some 300 people are facing trial, the Ghanaian said both the immigrants and the Libyans were to blame for the misunderstanding.

Although Libyan officials said five people died and several others were injured in the violence, which erupted in Zawia, some 50 km West of Tripoli and later hit the Gurgarech and Gorji districts of the Libyan capital, some immigrants repatriated over the incident claimed the toll was higher.

Williams said he was protected by his employers during the crisis and had to stay away from work for one week.

He admitted that some immigrants engaged in criminal and anti-social activities such as prostitution, theft and drug trafficking, which are forbidden in the Jamahirya, observing strict Islamic principles.

But he suggested that the best solution is to fish out the suspects as well as their local collaborators for punishment under the law.

In every society, there are bad people, and the same applies to Libya and the immigrants, said Williams, a casual worker with one of the oil companies, who is supporting his wife and a child on a salary of 400 Dinars a month.

Asked why he did not join those who went home after the crisis, Williams said some of them were returning to Libya and I am still better off here.

His plan is to make enough money and then go back to Ghana. Another immigrant, Ismail Gaye from Senegal, who is probably in a worse situation, is however, fired by similar monetary ambition as Williams.

An apprentice at a metal workshop owned by a Libyan, Ismail, had set out from Dakar two months ago with Morocco as his destination.

But on getting to Tunisia I could not continue my journey because of lack of money, this was how I found myself in Tripoli, said the 23-year-old Senegalese, who disclosed that he lost his father at an early age and could not continue with his education.

He said his mother also died recently leaving him and eight other orphans of their parents to fend for themselves.

From all indications, the emigration of Sub-Saharan Africans into Libya which dates from history, and accentuated in the 1990s by the down turn in the economies of many African countries, is unlikely to abate, not even with the last September incident, which Libyan officials are eager to erase from their country’s memory.

Many of the later day immigrants are attracted to the North African country, partly by its buoyant economy and a burning desire to use the nation as a launching pad for emigration to Europe.

Southern Libya too, is populated by Blacks, who account for some 1.4 million of the country’s estimated five million people, and officials in Tripoli say Col. Moammar Kadhafi, leader of Libya’s 1969 Revolution, also practices his Pan-Africanist policy at home.

They cite two raking positions held by Blacks --Gen. Aboubakar Younes Jabber as Commander of the Libyan Army and Abdulraham Chulgham as Foreign Minister, arguing that the nation cannot therefore be accused of discrimination.

Like any other developing country, Libya has its own political and socio-economic problems, but Kadhafi is anxious not to dent his Pan-Africanist record, as evidenced by his efforts at championing greater continental unity through the African Union, proclaimed on 2 March in his home city of Sirte, some 450 km from Tripoli.