Conflict & Justice

Migrant workers from Libya trapped at border

By Ben Gilbert

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Three days ago, Nigerian migrant Jessica Jones finally had enough. She'd been living in Benghazi. She said Libyan rebels accused dark-skinned African migrant workers like her of being mercenaries for leader Muammar Gaddafi. And it simply became too dangerous.

Jones said the "Libya boys," as she called the rebels, searched house to house. Jones made the trek to the Egyptian border because she feared for her life.

"The situation in Benghazi is very critical, because those Libya boys, they are going to houses and attacking our blacks, especially the Nigerians, and Ghanaians, raping our girls, stealing our money, and beating people up," Jones said. "So we just run away from there. Most of our boys, they catch them and lock them up, so we don't know what the situation is there."

Jones had been working as a housekeeper in Benghazi. Her brother, an electrician named Terry David, also worked there. And he, too, said that rebels attacked him and other African migrants.

"Sometimes they hit us, anything they have in their hand. Point gun at you; sometimes blow out people's brains," Jones said. "So we can't stand that, and have to run away from the country."

David pulled out his cell phone and showed a video of what he said are Africans who were killed by rebels in eastern Libya. David said some people in the background can be heard asking the rebels why they killed the Africans. Other voices off camera answer that the victims were mercenaries for Gaddafi.
Trapped

David and Jones are just a few of the thousands of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Bangladeshis and Chadians trapped on the Libya/Egypt border. Most of the men sleep outside among piles of trash, with only blankets as protection against the cold wind.

A lucky few have strung up plastic tarps provided by international aid workers. The hundred or so women and children sleep on the dirty floor of the Egyptian immigration building.

A few Bangladeshi workers are making do in a building next door. Nour Mohamad, a Bangladeshi pipe fitter, fled 12 days ago. He and his fellow refugees are frustrated at the response by the Egyptian authorities.

"They no have good place for sleep, for moving, for toilet, for shower, there's nothing for us," Mohamad said. "We are already sick."
Travel documents

Mohamad said his employer in Libya still owes him four months' salary. He doesn't expect to receive his pay. But at least he has his travel documents.

Mohammad Zain Zamah was employed in Libya as a maintenance worker for a Jordanian company. Zamah said unlike Nour Mohamad, he and his colleagues can't leave because they don't have their travel documents.

"Foreign companies were holding our passports. And they left Libya without giving them to us," Zamah said.

Aid workers say 95 percent of the refugees here have no passports or travel documents. Employers in the Middle East and North Africa routinely confiscate foreign employees' passports upon arrival.

When violence broke out, the company managers fled without returning the passports to the migrants. Others had their documents stolen by thieves.

There is some small amount of good news, at least for a few of the thousands fleeing Libya. A group of Bangledeshi were bussed the nine hours to the Cairo airport, thanks to the International Organization for Migration. The group has been helping to get the stranded migrants tickets on charter flights back home.

A thousand left on Saturday. But more keep arriving from Libya. For now, the situation at the border is under control, but barely. The Egyptian government's resources have been stretched.

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