Soldiers loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi have blocked some 30,000 migrant workers from fleeing into Tunisia and forced many to return to work in the Libyan capital, a Red Crescent official said today.
The migrant workers were rounded up and apparently held in Libyan immigration buildings near the Tunisian border last week, Ibrahim Osman of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told The Associated Press.
Mr Osman, who heads the agency’s assessment teams in northern Africa, said Gaddafi soldiers were forcibly turning back many of the 30,000 Bangladeshis, Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans nearing the Ras Ajdir border crossing.
He said loyalists had held a pro-government demonstration at the crossing, and later that evening the “30,000 (migrant workers) accumulated at the Libyan border, waiting to cross.”
And the Libyan government denies any knowledge of “a humanitarian crisis?” he said. “And then in the evening, those 30,000 did not cross, but disappeared…. Up until now, I don’t know anybody who knows exactly where those people have gone.”
Mr Osman, a Sudanese economist who recently stepped down as deputy secretary-general of Geneva-based IFRC, said aid agencies had asked for satellite images to locate the people, but they had been unsuccessful in finding any large camps.
He said it’s possible some of them got into Tunisia with other successful migrants, but he assumes the 30,000 were crammed into the Libyan border offices to be processed and then returned to Tripoli.
“All of them are either Egyptians, Bangladeshis and Africans,” he said. “They were taken back to resume their services, because Tripoli used a lot of those people for basic workers, to clean the hospitals, to work… This is the speculation. … They may not have a choice. They might also have been tempted by more pay.”
Mr Osman also said that several thousand more workers are trapped without passports in the no man’s land between Libya’s borders with Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan.
“Like airports in Europe, you arrive in the transit area, and you are not in the country. … If you don’t have papers, then you are stuck,” he said. “The Libyan side – they don’t care. … We have a couple of thousand, about 2,000 to 3000 people, and those are mainly people who have no documents. They have fled, they are scared.”
Still, more refugees are arriving at a steady pace, he said. On Saturday, more than 2000 fled from Libya to Tunisia, on Sunday more than 3000, and on Monday more than 2000.
“It’s not the 12,000 to 14,000 we had a week ago, but we are still looking at thousands of people coming in,” he said. “It’s a constant challenge. We evacuate people, but more are coming in. We keep saying that aid agencies, donors, everyone needs to remain focused on this crisis. We are not out of the woods yet. We don’t know how many (more) people from Libya will come across the borders.”
As of Tuesday, 224,661 migrants had reached Libya’s borders with Tunisia, Egypt, Niger and Algeria since February 20, according to the latest International Organisation for Migration figures.
The UN refugee agency expressed alarm Tuesday at what it called rising violence by armed Libyans against sub-Saharan Africans, both in the rebel-controlled eastern portions and in Gaddafi’s stronghold in the west.
Fear is intense among Africans in Libya because of widespread tales of “African” mercenaries hired to do Gaddafi’s killing for him. In some cities, suspected mercenaries have been lynched.
UN refugee officials said a group of Sudanese who reached the Egypt border from eastern Libya said armed Libyans were going door to door, forcing sub-Saharan Africans to leave, and a 12-year-old Sudanese girl was said to have been raped.
The agency also reported that many people had their documents confiscated or destroyed. Agencies