When displacement, landmines and racism mix: the fate of Eritreans in Libya

A couple of weeks ago, Human Rights Concern  – Eritrea (HRC-E), a UK-based NGO working on behalf of the human rights of Eritreans in Eritrea and the diaspora, issued this report:

76 Eritrean refugees in Libya are being used to clear land mines in Sirte, the home town of the late Gaddafi. The refugees are forced all day to clear land mines. These are not trained professionals. This is not humanitarian de-mining. This is a callous, inhuman treatment of humans as if they were disposable pieces of equipment. It amounts to nothing less than murder.

These refugees are not given access to UNHCR. It is inhuman that these refugees, who fled persecution in Eritrea, should suffer further harassment and risk being blown up while clearing the mines. The Libyans do not want to do it themselves, so they use refugees.  This is barbaric and should be condemned. (Human Rights Concern – Eritrea).

The mine action community mobilized pretty rapidly after the fall of the Gaddhafi regime to provide mine risk education and demining services in Libya.  On the ground are several operators and significant funding was provided at the outset by donor states (although much of that funding was specifically geared towards preventing the proliferation of shoulder-fired surface to air rockets).  As such, this report seemed pretty incredible and I have not yet been able to locate any corroboration.  However, it does – unfortunately – fit into a much broader pattern of behavior in North Africa towards Sub-Saharan Africans.  It is also not the first report of people being forced to clear mines without proper training and support.

Prior to the revolution in Libya, as many as 2 million of Libya’s 7 million residents were foreign-born immigrants, some from Arab states, but many if not most from Sub-Saharan Africa.  Gaddhafi presented himself as leader of the pan-African movement and trained separatists and rebels from many countries including the Toureg who have recently been fighting against the Malian government and the convicted war criminal Charles Taylor and his allies in Liberia.  Gaddhafi also invited many black Africans to work in the Libyan oil fields where lucrative jobs were available and workers were able to earn enough to send remittances home to support families and communities.  In a billboard in Tripoli, “Colonel Qaddafi appears as a savior as sun rays break over his shoulder and a crowd of black men and women reach toward him with outstretched arms.” Native Libyans were angered by these acts and resented the presence of what they believed were “illegal” immigrants in their country.  In 2000 pogroms in Libya led to the deaths of many black Africans at the hands of native Libyans, attacks that were repeated in 2004, 2006 and 2008.  Against that backdrop, Gaddhafi’s use of African mercenaries to try and hold onto power in 2011 was an invitation for abuse.

Reports of Africans being held by Libyan rebels in detention camps abounded.  According to the US State Department African refugees in Libya faced killings, arbitrary detention, attacks on camps, and gender-based violence.  The State Department also reported on the presence of a camp at al-Kufrah where migrants faced physical abuse in addition to needing humanitarian assistance; a camp that Human Rights Concern – Eritrea also mentions as holding 300 Eritrean refugees.  Because Gaddhafi used African mercenaries, mostly from Chad, Niger and Mali, to protect his regime, all Africans in Libya after the 2011 revolution were subject to suspicion, detention and deportation, along with a host of abuses throughout.  Since the revolution, the new government has not taken steps to protect immigrants or refugees and human trafficking routes for forced labor and forced prostitution have returned.

The divide between North Africans and Sub-Saharan Africans and the racism of North Africans towards Sub-Saharan Africans has been well documented (see Think Africa Press’s pieces here and here and UN Watch’s piece here).  In the United States, the dichotomy came to the forefront in discussions about Darfur where the Arabized militias of the janjaweed would attack the black Darfurians as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign.  This simplistic and reductive argument paralleled the narrative about the Sudanese civil war between Sudan and South Sudan where the Arabs of Khartoum fought the Christians and animists of the South to maintain control over the oil reserves.  Again, a too-pat description, but one that was easy for Americans to understand and had a strong basis in the racism of North Africans and Arabs towards Sub-Saharan Africans.

It is very possible that Eritrean refugees are subjected to forced labor in the new Libya.  Many Eritreans have suffered greatly in their attempts to flee their country (in recent months, two Eritrean pilots defected to Saudi Arabia with the Eritrean President’s official plane; a third pilot sent to retrieve the plane from Saudi Arabia defected herself [Think Africa Press]; in 2009, 2011 and 2012 members of the Eritrean national football team sought asylum during regional tournaments [Sudan Tribune]) paying huge ransoms to human smugglers to avoid the country’s mandatory military service.  Traffickers take advantage of those wanting to flee Eritrea and have basically sold them into slavery in places like Libya.

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea’s report would also not be the first report of people being forced to demine fields with little or no protection.  In Burma, the practice of “atrocity demining” has been reported by Human Rights Watch.  Atrocity demining, or “human mine sweeping,” is the “forced passage of civilians over confirmed or suspected mined areas or the forced use of civilians to clear mines without appropriate training or equipment.” It is a war crime and survivors of the practice in Burma were “forced them to dig out landmines, to strike or beat the ground with a pitchfork or pickaxe before [Burmese] soldiers walked on it, or to walk in front of Tatmadaw columns in a mined area or in an area suspected to have been mined.”

At its very root, the HRC-E report shows how marginalized persons suffer greater risks and abuses during and immediately after conflict.  Those risks are magnified when combined with racism and discrimination and can constitute war crimes when in the presence of landmines.

Michael P. Moore

April 10, 2013

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