Libya: African refugees – whose responsibility? (opinion)

Pambazuka News, by Nunu Kidane* / Thursday, 17 March 2011

The way migration is discussed in the US one would think it is a problem of the US alone and not a global phenomenon about people’s movement, displacement and mistreatment across national boundaries.

People in the US have always viewed historic events as if this country is the centre of the world and those living outside, and particularly in the global South, are of no consequence. But migrants, people who are not born in the US, make up over 10 per cent of the US population and do not share this view.

As an immigrant from Eritrea, when I hear of the continued unrest and resistance of the people of Libya it fills me with hope for their struggle and fear and concern for what is happening to migrants and refugees there.

News reports change daily, but the UN figures from 3 March showed nearly 200,000 refugees on the Libya–Egypt border alone; another 100,000 or so are across the eastern border in Tunisia.

Daily news bulletins of the BBC and major newspapers like the Guardian in the UK or The New York Times also have some coverage that addresses the plight of refugees and displaced persons in these crisis areas of North Africa. As an Eritrean, I’m also plugged into various list-serves and social media connections that have information on what is happening to Eritreans and Somali refugees in Libya.

The stories are heart-wrenching, of individuals under siege, afraid to stay and afraid to leave. No government or institution is helping them (with the exception of the UNHCR, and they are stretched beyond capacity.) These refugees are virtually ignored by all nations of the world as they try to rescue their respective nationals through air and sea.

A friend in Italy, Seleba Welday, who had been in Libya as a refugee himself not too long ago, sent an urgent message on Facebook about a group of young Eritrean men who are desperate to escape and in fear for their lives. The best he could do was give them the UNHCR hotline (the UNHCR has established a hotline for refugees and asylum seekers in Libya – the number is here for those in need: +218 214777503). See also this report from Human Rights Concern Eritrea.

The big papers of course focus their stories on Gaddafi and the government of Libya, stories of those of power and influence, of oil and geopolitical considerations, whether to invade Libya or not, if a military intervention is a better option than economic sanctions, the role of the US and of European countries and those of the Arab sates. Lost in this shuffle are the lives of people who are migrant workers, refugees, displaced persons – poor and inconsequential in the eyes of the powerful.

My friend Bill Minter, editor of one of the best electronic bulletin news sources, AfricaFocus recently sent me this from Al Jazeera English: ‘Many African migrant workers report that they have been attacked by anti-government protesters, after having been mistaken for mercenaries hired by Gaddafi’. In this case, refugees from Sudan find their homes burned to the ground.

Recently, a blog by Tedla Asfaw on speaks on racial identification of migrants in Libya. ‘Racism rears its ugly face in Libya uprising live on TV’ tells of the clash between Libyan nationalist activists and ‘African’ mercenaries. The topic of race and identity between North Africa and Africa south of the Sahara is too long to cover on this blog, but deserves some research and analysis.

Some readers may recall similar stories not too long ago about Darfur, Sudan where ‘Africans’ were being attacked by the ‘Arabs’. Concepts of race and ethnicity get misconstrued when read by audiences in the US whose concept of race is profoundly framed by their own history and limited to the black/white dichotomy. It is of course much more nuanced in Africa and other regions of the world. It is a subject that begs understanding of histories of movement of people from centuries ago. But, let’s be honest, most Americans are not big fans of reading past history – what matters is what is happening now and if CNN does not cover it, it is obviously not important.

For those interested in reading more in this topic, Farai Sevenzo attempts to put a historic perspective on Libya’s ties with the rest of Africa for a commentary on the BBC.

But to get back to the issue of better coverage of news and analysis on what is happening to migrants and refugees in Libya – and especially to migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan African countries – one must ask the question ‘who is responsible?’ Is it regional institutions from within Africa, like ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States)? What are the leaders of West African countries doing to rescue their citizens and nationals? Who are these so-called mercenaries that Gaddafi has hired, are they mere individuals in it for the money, or trained military personnel with connections to power? We know they are largely from West African countries – what is ECOWAS’s responsibility in this regard? What about the Arab League? Their biggest concern seems to be the effect of the crisis on the price of oil and how to prevent Western intervention and ensure a ‘pan-Arab solution.’ There is virtually no discussion about the ‘responsibility to protect’ – either Arab nationals or all people, regardless of ethnicity.

Then lastly and probably most important, what about the African Union? How is it possible that the biggest organisation representing the continent should remain virtually silent on the issue of protection of Africans in times of crisis ? BBC asked this question ‘Why has African response to the Libyan crisis been so muted?’

African heads of states (starting from the formation of the pre-AU body, the Organisation of African Unity) make it clear that their priorities are perpetuating their stay in power and securing their interests and territories. The citizenry, which is mentioned in the AU vision statement, is clearly not on the top agenda now; it never has been.

‘Colonel Ghaddafi plays a prominent role in the African Union. Some say he bankrolls the organisation and has been known to pay the dues for many smaller, poorer countries. As a result, African presidents have been accused of staying silent on the situation in his country.’

‘Mozambique’s President Armando Guebuza speaks on BBC Network Africa about Libya.’

In his interview, President Guebuza is non-committal and does not make clear the responsibility of African heads of state on this matter, only that military intervention is not advised.

I commend the United Nations in its effort to deal with the massive refugees who are crossing borders on a daily basis. The UNHCR in particular continues to be the voice of the hundreds of thousands who are fleeing across borders. The agency has limited resources (and an even more limited mandate) and cannot be the only response to the crisis of displacement in the region. African governments, and especially the AU, need to step up to this task.

* This article was first published on Mayibuye Africa – Migration Blog.

Short URL:

Posted by on Mar 19 2011 Filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Leave a Reply

Photo Gallery

Log in |2011