Black Migrants Caught In Libya Unrest
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We are going to talk more about Libya. Much of the focus on the crisis in Libya has been on the fighting there and the shifting balance of power between rebel fighters and government forces. But caught in the middle are hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, most of whom want to escape the turmoil. To date, more than 280,000 migrants have fled Libya into the neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt, according to the U.N.'s International Organization of Migration. They estimate that 6,000 refugees are streaming across the Libyan border each day. Many of them are originally from African nations to the south of Libya.
Among them is Ben Asika Obi. He is from Nigeria. He'd been living and working in Tripoli for the past 10 years. We caught up with him at a transit camp set up by the United Nations just inside Tunisia some 12 miles from the Libyan border and he's with us now on his cell phone from the camp. Mr. Asika Obi, thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. BEN ASIKA OBI: Thanks...
MARTIN: What caused you to leave? Was it immediately clear to you that you needed to leave?
Mr. ASIKA OBI: Yes. What made me to leave, I'm not only me, in fact what made most of the black Africans to leave Libya was because of Al Jazeera made a comment (unintelligible) Moammar Gadhafi. He mentioned about the black mercenaries, they were brought into Libya to fight Libya, led by Moammar Gadhafi, the masses (unintelligible) they weren't mercenaries or they're black. But they assume every black man in Libya one of the mercenaries.
MARTIN: So you're saying that once Al Jazeera reported that there are mercenaries fighting on behalf of the government, that people - regular people assumed that if you were a black man you must be a mercenary?
Mr. ASIKA OBI: Yes. This is what - exactly what happened like this. Exactly what made me to leave the country.
MARTIN: But what happened? Did people say things to you? Did they threaten you?
Mr. ASIKA OBI: OK. On the 18th of February, I was in my house with my family, around 9 PM, the son of my old landlord came with a group of Libyans knocking at my door, forced me to open the door. I opened the door, he said (unintelligible) I must leave instantly now - with gun - on gunpoint. I left -I run away with my children. So what will I do? Let me save the life of my children and my own life without the money, I could not get out of my house.
MARTIN: How many children do you have?
Mr. ASIKA OBI: I have two children. There are some Nigerians they have three, some have one here. Many Nigerians have children here with me - all they stranded.
MARTIN: Were they born in Libya?
Mr. ASIKA OBI: They were born in Libya.
MARTIN: What are you going to do now?
Mr. ASIKA OBI: In fact, I'm confused of what going to do because I'm stranded. I'm just standing here talking with you because of the help of the United Nations and the Arab Emirates. If not, I cannot be (unintelligible).
MARTIN: That is a very difficult situation and I do appreciate you talking to us about it.
Mr. ASIKA OBI: (unintelligible) my sister.
MARTIN: Yes. I am so sorry this happened to you. And I appreciate you speaking with us. And we wish the very best of luck to you and your family. Ben Asika Obi was living and working in Tripoli for 10 years. He's with us on a cell phone from a transit camp set up by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees just across the Libyan border in Tunisia and as you can hear, he is there with his family, his very young family.
Mr. Asika Obi, we wish you the very best.
Mr. ASIKA OBI: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: The United Nations International Organization for Migration, the IOM, has been documenting stories such as Mr. Asika Obi's. There are efforts to get into Libya and it's now coordinating efforts to get those at the border camp home. We're joined now by IOM spokesman Jumbe Omari. Jumbe, at the Shusha Camp, which is in Tunisia just across from the Libyan border, thank you for speaking with us.
Mr. JUMBE OMARI (Spokesman, International Organization for Migration): My pleasure.
MARTIN: One of the, I think, revelations here is that we've been hearing and seeing stories of workers fleeing Libya, but we've mainly seen single men, to this point. Mr. Asika Obi has his family with him. How many of the migrants who are trying to get out, have their families with them? How many children, for example, and women, are a part of this story?
Mr. OMARI: Most migrants, really, do not have families. You can understand that these are people who came to work in Libya. They are laborers. Who came to work for two, three years, four years and go back home with the money and to start a new life. So, as such, many of them, particularly from Southeast Asia, they don't have families. But there are few cases, particularly those migrants who come from countries like Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, more and more, now, people come with families. All in all, the families here in this camp are 62. Those are Nigerians, Sudanese and Ghanaians.
MARTIN: OK. Now, we are told that there were some two million migrant workers in Libya before the unrest began. And even with all of the people, the hundreds of thousands who have since left, that suggests that the majority are still there. Does that sound right to you?
Mr. OMARI: I think that is correct, yes, ma'am. The majority of migrant laborers are still there.
MARTIN: And so who is there?
Mr. OMARI: There are 64 countries here. I mean, nationalities from 64 countries. But the majority, the Bangladeshis, over 12,000; the Ghanaians now here, around 3,000. Also, we have people from Mali, from Nepal, but those are minorities.
MARTIN: And the story that Mr. Asika Obi told us about being, sort of, forced out at gunpoint by the son of his landlord, who said, you know, just get out, with - brought people with him, brought weapons, said, just get out now. Is that a typical experience that you're hearing from people there?
Mr. OMARI: Yes. Corroborated by many. Many, particularly African migrants from Ghana, from elsewhere in Africa, they say, as Mr. Asika Obi said, that once word went around that there are African mercenaries fighting for Colonel Gadhafi, then the Libyans, you know, all the stories I get from them is that, even in peacetime, they were not really very gentle people towards the Africans. But when the word went out that there are mercenaries from Africa fighting for Colonel Gadhafi, then animosity really increased, tenfold or more.
And people with guns, the Libyans with guns, groups of people are going from house to house sort of kicking them out. His story has been corroborated by many migrants fleeing Libya.
MARTIN: And what is going to happen to these people now? What happens to them?
Mr. OMARI: Well, the majority of them want to go back home after they experience the (unintelligible). You can understand that. There are groups of, really, what we call refugees, like the Somalis, the Eritreans, some Iraqis and Palestinians - those who are not willing or unable to go back home. Their future is still being debated, really, because those qualify to be refugees.
But most of Nigerians, quoting individual cases, we have about 12 to 14 Nigerians who didn't want to go home. Most of them want to go home. The Ghanaians, the Nigerians, Malians, Cote d'Ivoireans - all want to go home. So they are just passing by here. We are facilitating their passage, so to speak, to their countries.
MARTIN: And, finally, what are the conditions there and do you have adequate supplies for what you need?
Mr. OMARI: That's a very good question. Actually, the situation in the camp, Mr. Obi spoke to you about good condition here. That is because there are two camps now. The UAE, United Arab Emirates, pitched a camp just two days ago to help decongest the main camp, Shusha. I mean, the Shusha main camp is about 300, 500 meters away from this. Now, this UAE camp is a little bit better in conditions and they cater mainly for families.
But when you go to the main camp, that is Shusha Camp, I can tell you that the situation is very bad. I mean, everything is not enough. It's not adequate because of the sheer numbers of the residents there. And but we are almost about 32 organizations - local and international organizations. We are trying to improve the situation.
Now, I want to say this before I go, the IOM, which is the International Organization for Migration, as well as our partners, the UNHCR, in the beginning of this crisis, we issued a plea to the donors to fund us for $49.2 million. and I'm sad to say that that money hasn't arrived. I mean, as IOM, we received only $25 million. You know, a drop in the ocean to compare with the needs of these migrants. Therefore, if there is no new money coming, we will be forced to suspend our activities by Saturday. This message, I really want it to go out.
MARTIN: Jumbe Omari Jumbe is a spokesman for the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration. He joined us from the Shusha transit camp on Tunisia's border with Libya. Mr. Omari Jumbe, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. OMARI: Thank you. Thank you, too. Thank you.
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