Show Hide image

Looking for a new life in Libya

Jack arrived in Tripoli from Liberia in February 2011, just as the Libyan revolution was beginning. Like many of the migrants in this country, estimated at up to 1.5 million, he entered through Niger, crossing the Sahara in a 4x4 packed with fellow travellers. The journey was traumatic: once, the jeep overturned, severely injuring two people. The men were often beaten and some of the women were raped. He spent the last four hours to Tripoli locked in the boot of a small saloon car. “I felt like I had already died,” he told me.

On 20 October, the day of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, as thousands gathered in Martyrs’ Square to celebrate, Jack left the house he now guards to buy water. On his way, he was stopped by militiamen, beaten and driven to the Old City, where he was detained with others accused of being pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. A phone call to his boss – a respected figure in the local revolutionary brigade – secured his release, but he has since been attacked and mugged twice by armed youths.

In some ways, Jack is lucky: he has found a job. With a fragile peace restored in the city, Tripoli’s casual labourers have returned to roundabouts such as Ghout al-Sha’al, where they sit listlessly in the roadside dust hoping for work.

I stopped to talk to a group from Benin and feared they were unable to speak freely. They looked nervous and assured me that Libya was “great”, the war was “great”, they had come here looking for work and had found none but they were “great”.

My worries were confirmed when I passed the same spot the following day and found a man being beaten up and forced into a Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade car. Such incidents are less frequent than they were a few months ago, a Libyan friend explained: “But what can you expect with no law and order, when people can play both judge and executioner?”


There’s a popular new saying in Tripoli: “We’ve got rid of the big Gaddafi; now we need to get rid of the six million mini-Gaddafis.” It’s a welcome acknowledgement of the need for ordinary Libyans to start shouldering responsibility for their future and of the psychological damage that 42 years of ruthless, divisive rule can inflict on a population.

It also shows an understanding that history will judge Libya’s revolution on its success in tackling its abysmal human rights record, and that the challenges are cultural as well as political.

A lot has changed since late February 2011, when I was last in Tripoli. The shift in atmosphere is palpable. The post-revolutionary euphoria has not yet fully subsided and in newly opened cafés Libyans are openly, loudly and happily discussing their country’s politics for the first time in decades. Yet the price paid for this freedom is obvious: posters of local shahada, or martyrs, hang in every street.

Almost every man in Libya now owns a gun and the evenings are punctuated by sporadic gunfire – although usually in Tripoli this is celebratory, if sometimes deadly.

Migrants, long subject to discrimination, are especially vulnerable in this tense, militarised lawlessness. Chidi Paul, a Nigerian doctor who made his first desert crossing into Libya ten years ago, no longer dares to walk outside. “The problem now is Libyan youths,” he says. “They attack Africans on the streets. I can’t walk on the street any more; I take taxis everywhere. They collect your phone, your money. They even stab you. It happens every day.”

Worrying stories are emerging from parts of the country not yet fully under government control. “There are reports, and these are accurate, of situations where migrants are being exploited by worksites or sold from informal detention sites, so an actual trade in migrants is ongoing,” says Jeremy Haslam, mission chief for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Libya.

He offers an example: “A pick-up truck stops at an informal detention site; 15 migrants are forced into the back to go to work. They aren’t asked if they want to. It may be completely inappropriate work. And whether they get paid at the end of the day, whether they get sent back to the detention site, is a question mark.”

IOM is keen to emphasise that migration, if properly managed, can bring immense benefits to migrants, their host country and their country of origin. Soon Libya will need migrant labourers more than ever, as the economy picks up and reconstruction begins. The task of reconstruction is huge, the country’s population is small and most Libyans – weaned on handouts from oil – are unlikely to take up manual work. How tragic it would be if the country now affectionately known as Libya al-Hurra, or “Free Libya”, were rebuilt on exploited labour.

But despite everything, none of the migrants I spoke to wanted to go home. The poverty and insecurity they risked their lives to escape are worse than anything they have encountered here.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear’s

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis