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LIBYA: Thousands of Foreign Labourers Trapped in Turmoil

Aprille Muscara

WASHINGTON, Mar 3 2011 (IPS) - As violent unrest continues unabated in Libya, with the potential to descend into what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a “protracted civil war” in statements to lawmakers here this week, international rights groups are raising the alarm over the resulting humanitarian crisis and the particularly desperate plight of stranded immigrant labourers.

“Thousands upon thousands of foreign workers remain stuck in Benghazi, after being forced from their factories and losing their possessions in last week’s tumultuous events,” said Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director Peter Bouckaert, who is in the opposition-held city.

The United Nations estimates that between 600 and 2,000 peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders have been killed at the command of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime since its brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrations began over a fortnight ago.

In the midst of this bloodshed, some 75,000 refugees have fled to Tunisia and 69,000 to Egypt, with about 40,000 others unable to leave Libya, according to the latest figures from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Among those stranded within the North African country’s borders are tens of thousands of immigrant workers from developing nations.

“The people most in need are mainly from poorer countries in Asia and Africa, who remain stuck in Benghazi and on the border with Tunisia and whose governments have apparently to date been unable or unwilling to rescue them,” Bouckaert noted, urging for an international effort to help these “highly vulnerable” populations flee for their safety.

Amnesty International says that 30,000 to 150,000 Filipino OFWs (overseas foreign workers), 60,000 Bangladeshis, 2,000 to 5,000 Nepalis and over one million refugees, asylum- seekers and migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, were in the country prior to the current crisis – with many of them now trapped in the tumult.

About 3,500 of these non-Africans – including labourers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – are awaiting departure in two Benghazi camps, with thousands of others in company compounds, according to Human Rights Watch.

But of greatest concern to these rights groups and UNHCR is the reported discrimination against African immigrant workers from south of the Sahara who are attempting, and being denied, escape from the country’s bloody turmoil due to misguided suspicions that they are among the regime- contracted mercenaries.

Libya’s ambassador to the U.N., Ibrahim Dabbashi, said Saturday that Gaddafi’s hired guns, who are accused of participating in the attacks against innocent civilians, were imported from Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya and Niger, in addition to the North African countries of Algeria and Tunisia.

“All those fleeing the chaos in Libya must be given sanctuary by neighbouring states without discrimination – not refused entry and put at risk of falling victim to further violence,” said Michael Bochenek, AI’s director of Law and Policy.

“Day after day, some governments are managing to send boats to evacuate thousands of their nationals, but Africans, who are most vulnerable and destitute, are being left behind,” Bouckaert echoed.

While these migrants remain marooned, thousands of foreigners from Algeria, Bosnia, Britain, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Greece, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Macedonia, Morocco, the Netherlands, Nigeria, South Korea, Syria, Turkey, the U.S., Vietnam and other countries have been evacuated in recent days by their companies or governments, according to rights groups and media reports.

“If the European countries and the United States are serious about their pledges of humanitarian assistance, they should assist in getting these threatened and trapped African migrants back home,” Bouckaert insisted.

Meanwhile, the U.N. has expressed concern about what it deems to be a dearth of medical supplies and limited food stocks in the oil-producing country.

On Monday, the U.S. announced that it has allocated 10 million dollars of emergency humanitarian assistance for Libya and is dispatching two teams to assist refugees at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, while France pledged to send two planes with medical staff and equipment to Benghazi – what will be the West’s first instance of direct aid inside the country.

Western governments, including that in Washington, have come under some recent scrutiny by hawkish critics, who have argued that their response to the violent developments in Libya hasn’t been forceful enough.

In light of the government-sanctioned crackdown and its resulting humanitarian crisis, some arguments for military options – from establishing a “no-fly zone” to direct intervention – invoke the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) against crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes, urging action by the international community.

R2P was mentioned in a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted Saturday that referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals accused of these three mass crimes.

“The regime of Gaddafi has already started the genocide against the Libyan people,” Dabbashi charged last week, eliciting some debate over his controversial word choice.

While some folks advocate for armed action – drawing comparisons between the estimated 1,000 deaths-too-many by the Gaddafi regime and the Rwandan and Bosnian crises of the 1990s, which witnessed the mass murders of some 800,000 and over 100,000 people, respectively – other observers, referencing this decade’s Iraq invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, warn against the consequences of heavy-handed involvement.

“The U.S. would…be committing its military to violent regime change in another Muslim nation,” wrote Ron Capps, director of Refugees International’s peacekeeping programme, in a blog post Tuesday, adding: “The potential backlash is impossible to gauge.”

In addition to mobilising humanitarian assistance, Washington announced Monday that it was repositioning some naval and air forces closer to Libya. In testimonies to lawmakers this week, Clinton declared, “[W]e are taking no option off the table so long as the Libyan government continues to turn its guns on its own people.”

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