TRIPOLI: Europe is not the only place where sub-Saharan African migrants aim to start a new life. For years, oil-rich Libya was a magnet for foreign workers but with the country teetering on the edge of chaos they are finding it is no longer a promised land for jobs.
Instead, many migrants encounter a society often hostile toward them and a government ill-equipped to deal with an influx of eager, but also illegal, workers.
After traveling over 1,600 treacherous kilometers across the Sahara Desert, Abocar, a young man from Mali, arrived in Libya hoping to make money for his family and eventually return home.
“It’s very difficult to find work. There are too many immigrants. I crossed through Algeria and had to pay a lot of money for a guide,” Abocar told Reuters near a busy road where he sits day after day hoping to find a job.
Scarce job opportunities leave many in limbo – without the funds to move on to Europe or return home. Prior to the civil war, there was an estimated 1.5 million-2.5 million immigrants in Libya, according to a report by the Danish Refugee Council. No reliable data have been produced since.
Tripoli is under pressure from the European Union to stem the tide of boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea but fails to address one of the contributing factors to this movement – migrants’ increasing desperation within Libya.
In the aftermath of a 2011 civil war, always porous borders have become highways to the north. Libya lacks the necessary legislation outlining immigrants’ rights and status, leaving them in fear of arrest and with little access to health care, education and banking.
A fragile government is struggling to gain legitimacy and impose authority over brigades of former fighters. The national assembly is crippled by political infighting and the Cabinet exerts little control over the country beyond the capital.
Heavily armed gunmen stormed parliament Sunday demanding its suspension and claiming loyalty to a renegade army general who has vowed to purge the country of Islamist militants.
Libya’s main source of revenue, oil exports, has been mostly shut down by protests for nearly 10 months leaving a more pressing issue of how to prevent a budget deficit ballooning out of control.
As a result, parliament plans to freeze public wages, halt new development funding and slash the number of subsidized goods.
Major projects are stagnating and foreign interest is also dwindling with kidnappings now commonplace in Tripoli while bombs and random shootings are on the rise in the east.
With no formal job-recruitment channels, many immigrants find themselves hanging out along highways or roundabouts hoping someone will need a mason or two.
In the Feshlum district of central Tripoli, hundreds of workers wait on the edge of a roundabout, hammer or pick in hand, sitting next to bags of cement and piles of rubble and sand, ready to jump into a pick-up and get to work.
Some are there as a cash stop-gap for the even riskier journey to Europe but many just want to stay for a couple of years and head home.
They wait, often weeks between jobs, and the majority have spent time in jail at one point or another, since they arrive without work permits or even passports.
Ahmad Jari, another worker from Mali, eventually landed a job in a general store in the square where he used to wait for masonry jobs.
“Work here depends on the day. You have 200 people waiting here and 30 will find work,” he said.
Living in cramped quarters, with four-five people per room, they are harassed by the police and even more often by local gangs. Without documentation, they have little recourse to help.
As a result, workers often get cheated out of money and are often paid less than promised. Thieves see them as “walking ATMs” since they have no option but to carry their cash.
“Sometimes I’m badly treated. They’ll promise 100 dinars for a job but when it’s done, they only give me 60,” Abocar said. “Kids in the street stole my phone and money.”
Without a phone, he could lose work. Along a highway in another part of Tripoli, more migrants sit by propped-up small wooden planks advertising their main skill-set together with their mobile number.
A stay in a detention center is almost a rite of passage – they have all done it, often more than once.
Ahmad saw his 1,600-km journey to Libya’s border as the easy part. He even told an Algerian policeman he was heading to find work. It was only once he was an hour outside Libya’s capital that he was stopped.
“The first time they caught me in Sabratha and I was in prison for a month and five days,” he said, “When I was in Sabratha, there were 500 of us in prison from Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea ... The second time I got caught, I was waiting in the square. I was in prison for 12 days because I didn’t have a visa.”
Why still come to Libya? A brief look at Mali may help explain why. It was thrown into turmoil in 2012 when Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists took advantage of a Tuareg-led rebellion and seized control of the country’s north before a French-led military operation drove them back.
Mali Sunday sent in troops to retake the northern town of Kidal from Tuareg separatists after six government workers and two civilians were killed during an attack on the regional governor’s office.
The non-profit and non-governmental Danish Refugee Council attributes part of the escalating migration crisis to Europe to a lack of understanding of the desires of migrants to Libya.
In a survey of over 1,000 migrants to Libya at the end of last year, the DRC said it was a “common misperception” that most wanted to reach Europe.
“Half of the people surveyed did not want to remain in Libya; of these 58 percent wanted to return back to their country of origin,” it added.
One factor is the danger of crossing the Mediterranean. Only last week, Italian naval and coast guard vessels recovered 14 bodies and rescued around 200 people after a migrant boat sank in the sea between Libya and southern Sicily.
One of the workers laughed at the idea of going to Europe, saying: “For me it’s too risky to go to Europe. Some do try and go by boat.”