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April 2011, Volume 18, Number 2

Libya, Tunisia: Migrants

Libya. In February-March 2011, demonstrators demanded the ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi, in power since a coup in 1969. Libya has the largest number of migrant workers in North Africa; up to 1.5 million of the 6.5 million residents in early 2011 were foreigners.

When fighting began, several hundred thousand migrants, most from neighboring Egypt and Tunisia fled over land borders to escape. Most migrants went to the Tunisian border, which is closer to Tripoli; conditions on the Libyan-Tunisian border were at times chaotic. Many countries evacuated their citizens from Libya and neighboring Tunisia with planes and boats. For example, China arranged ferries to take Chinese citizens to Italy and Greece.

Most Asian countries require departing migrants to pay a fee into a fund that, for instance, brings home migrants stranded abroad. However, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka appealed to donors and international organizations to arrange return transport for their citizens who fled Libya. The Bangladeshi government said there were 60,000 Bangladeshis in Libya, most employed in construction, and that many were unable leave Libya legally because their employers disappeared with their passports.

Initially, some Bangladeshis were reluctant to leave Libya because of their recruitment debts. Bangladesh's manpower secretary Zafar Ahmed Khan on March 1, 2011 encouraged them to stay: "We are discouraging those Bangladeshi who are still in Libya from coming back. These are poor workers. We are afraid if they come back they will lose everything."

However, as the fighting intensified and construction projects halted, more Bangladeshis crossed the border into Tunisia, where they complained that the Bangladesh Embassy in Tripoli did not quickly provide substitute identity documents. In some cases, employers and agents who were holding the Bangladeshis' passports left Libya without returning them, which made it hard for Bangladeshis to enter Tunisia.

Many Bangladeshis in camps in Tunisia complained to reporters that the recruitment promises made in Bangladesh were not fulfilled in Libya. Many sold or mortgaged their own or their relatives' land to earn $400 a month or more in Libya. Their Libyan wages were far less, and some Libyan employers paid wages to Bangladeshi agents rather than to migrants. One Bangladeshi said he borrowed 100,000 taka ($1,400) to go to Libya; in less than two years, his debt doubled to 200,000 taka. Other migrants reported being required to sign second contracts as they were boarding planes in Dhaka for Libya.

Once in Bangladesh, some migrants were "warehoused" in abandoned buildings in industrial zones for several months until local agents found jobs for them. Agents in Libya produced false job orders on company letterheads that were approved as legitimate by the Bangladeshi embassy in Tripoli. Bangladeshi workers arrived in Libya and, when legitimate employers requested workers, the agents sent the warehoused workers to fill jobs.

By the end of March, 2011, over 33,000 Bangladeshis who had been in Libya were return to Bangladesh, 85 percent with the help of IOM.

The Nepalese government asked recruiting agencies to pay half of the repatriation cost for Nepalese migrants stranded in Libya. When they refused, the government said it would use the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund, funded by Rs 1,000 ($14) paid by each departing migrant, to cover repatriation costs.

The US and other governments provided funds to enable IOM to transport Asian migrants to their countries of origin. However, hundreds of thousands of migrants from Ghana and Nigeria, who were often illegally in Libya, had to fend for themselves. Sub-Saharan Africans without documents said that, if they tried to move toward Libya's borders, Libyan police robbed them and Libyan rebels attacked them, assuming they were with the African mercenaries recruited by Qaddafi to fight the rebels.

Tunisia-Egypt. Demonstrations in January 2011 against Tunisian President Ben Ali, who came to power in a coup in 1987, prompted Ben Ali to resign January 14, 2011 and leave the North African country with the broadest middle class. Police who first shot demonstrators were restrained, prompting ever-larger demonstrations against Ali's extended family, whose members became rich despite increasing joblessness, especially among educated youth.

Demonstrations against Ben Ali were sparked by 26-year old Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire December 17, 2010 in front of local government offices after being harassed by police. He later died. Video of protests about corruption and harassment were spread via Facebook, setting in motion the demonstrations that eventually forced Ben Ali to flee.

In March 2001, Ben Ali was gone but unemployment persisted among the 3.3 million strong labor force, prompting more Tunisians to set sail for Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island 15 hours away by boat, at a cost of about $1,500. About 7,500 Tunisians a month left for Lampedusa in winter 2011, with numbers expected to rise as the weather improves.

The unrest in Tunisia was followed by demonstrations in other Arab countries with entrenched presidents, including Egypt, where poverty rose despite economic growth under President Hosni Mubarak, who took power in 1981. The benefits of economic growth flowed mostly to the wealthiest Egyptians with ties to the ruling National Democratic Party. The demonstrations prompted Mubarak to resign in February 2011 and led to protests in Bahrain and Yemen.

Egypt is one of the few countries with a shrinking share of its people in cities. About 44 percent of Egyptians were urban in 1980, and 43 percent in 2010. One estimate found that Egyptian men who completed secondary school in Egypt earned eight times more in the US than in Egypt.

Ivory Coast. Abidjan, once West Africa's most important city, lost migrants from neighboring West African countries in Winter 2011 as Laurent Gbagbo refused to give up the presidency despite losing the election to Alassane Ouattara, a former IMF official who is protected by UN forces. UNHCR said that up to a million people left Abidjan by the end of March 2011, as migrants from neighboring countries boarded buses provided by their governments to go home.

Migrants from poorer neighboring countries moved into Ivory Coast to work on cocoa plantations. Forces loyal to Ouattara in March 2011 marched southwest from their stronghold in Bouake to take control of the main cocoa producing hub of Daloa.

Growth. Six of the world's ten fastest-growing economies in 2000-10 were African; Angola grew faster than any other country in 2010. The 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are projected to grow almost six percent in 2011, encouraging African firms and multinationals to expand to serve one billion Africans.

Much of Africa's faster economic growth reflects higher commodity prices. Many observers fear that the increased government revenue associated with commodity exports will fuel corruption, the so-called resource curse. Some Africans joke that the animal they see most often is the white elephant, a high-profile investment that serve no purpose, such as the 24 new hospitals in Angola that are empty because the country has only 1,500 doctors for 18 million residents.

Morshed Ali Khan, "Deceived in the desert," Daily Star, March 16, 2011. Morshed Ali Khan, "Home beckons, holds no hope," Daily Star, March 16, 2011. Kareem Fahim, "In Libyan Port, Stranded Migrants Watch Hope Depart," New York Times, February 26, 2011.