Conflict & Justice

Concerns About the Safety of Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Libya

Early in the Libyan conflict, the Gaddafi regime imported mercenaries to help fend off the rebels.

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Most of them came from sub-Saharan Africa. So did many migrant workers who were in Libya when the rebellion began.

Still, many rebels suspect anyone with darker skin of being a mercenary leading to a dangerous situation for all sub-Saharan Africans still living in Libya.

The International Organization on Migration is concerned about their safety and has helped to evacuate more than a thousand of these migrant workers from Libya in the past week.

Anchor Marco Werman talks to reporter Marine Olivesi, who is in Tripoli.

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World.  Early in the Libyan conflict the Gaddafi regime imported mercenaries to help fend off the rebels.  Most of those hired guns came from Sub-Saharan Africa.  So did many migrant workers who were in Libya when the rebellion began.  Still, many rebels suspect anyone with darker skin of being a mercenary and that’s lead to a dangerous situation for all Sub-Saharan Africans still in Libya at this point. The International Organization on Migration is concerned about their safety.  The IOM has helped to evacuate more than 1,000 African migrant workers from Libya in the past week. Reporter Marine Olivesi is in Tripoli and are the rebels exactly revenge on anyone who is black, Marine?  I mean can the rebels tell the difference between a longtime African resident of Tripoli and those who were Gaddafi’s gun for hire?

Marine Olivesi: Not really, I mean it didn’t seem to me they were making any difference.  I was able to visit one of the impromptu visitation centers where they’ve been detaining black Africans.  It’s actually a school that was turned into an ad hoc jail for Africans suspected of being mercenaries.  And the commander in charge that I interviewed said they had arrested around 150 men with darker skin over a span of 3-4 days, and he admitted that these men were arrested only because of the color of their skin.  But he said that detaining them was also a way to protect these men against the crowd that could just target them if they were out on the streets. So, he explained to me that the rebels have setup this screening process where these black men are brought to their school, they’re kept there for a few hours or a few days.  They’re interrogated and then they’re kept in detention if they’re believed to be mercenaries or they’re set free otherwise.

Werman: So the rebels say they’re protecting the Sub-Saharan Africans from the possible violence they might encounter in the street.  Do you think that seems sincere?

Olivesi: It’s hard to tell.  What was troubling to me when I was at the school is that the screening process they use, the rebels don’t seem to have clear criteria to determine whether these men were with Gaddafi’s militia or not.  And you don’t really understand who’s in charge of making that decision. I witnessed a very strange scene there a few days ago.  I arrived at that school with a friend from Tripoli who’d been driving me around.  And he was randomly asked to interview one of the detainees and to advocate for him if he thought that that man should be freed.  And after a 10 minute interview my friend came back convinced that the man was innocent, and when I asked him why he said that the suspect was too young to be a mercenary, that he didn’t have enough muscle on his upper body to be a sniper, so he was let free based on the judgement of my driver. And on the contrary of course, it seems that some of these men have been kept in detention for days without any good evidence of their guilt either.

Werman: Now, you met a man in Tripoli from Nigeria.  His story seems like a classic example of the dilemma many black Africans are facing right now in Libya.

Olivesi: Yeah, so his name is Mansour.  Mansour is from Nigeria.  He entered Libya in 2002.  He told me he was arrested shortly after the rebels in Zawiya about three weeks ago.  He said rebels hit his door open, searched around the apartment, turning things upside down, presumably looking for guns.  He said they didn’t find anything at his place, but he was still accused of being a mercenary.  He was tired and thrown in jail for four days. He was only let free because he met, one of the rebels he met while in detention was from Zawiya and recognized him.  He vouched for him and said that man was definitely not a mercenary, so he was set free.  But since then Mansour says he’s scared of going home, he’s scared of walking on the streets, so he decided to go to the local hospital and just make himself available.  He’s offering his help in exchange for food and shelter.

Werman: Marine, is what’s going on in Libya right now a case of deep suspicion during a time of political upheaval or is there innate racism at play there?

Olivesi: Not sure if it’s about racism, it’s just feels to me sometimes that it’s a bit convenient to blame the foreigners because in that time where everybody is trying to figure out who was really a rebel, who was really part of the resistance, who was pro-Gaddafi, it seems easier for everyone to think that the enemy are the foreigners and to just close their eyes on all of the regular Libyans who might have been supporting Gaddafi, who might have been in the militia, but targeting by race just seems to be more convenient in bad times.  So that might be a reason.

Werman: Reporter Marine Olivesi in Tripoli.  Thank you very much for speaking with us, Marine.

Olivesi: You’re welcome.

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