x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Foreign labour exodus is stalling measures to rebuild Libya

Civil war that toppled Muammar Qaddafi has also cost Libya much of its workforce, posing authorities a new challenge.

Many migrants have returned to Niger since leaving Libya following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Many migrants have returned to Niger since leaving Libya following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

TRIPOLI // Libya's new leaders are desperate for men like Egbe Ezoba, a Nigerian house-cleaner, to leave the country. But they also want them back.

"Maybe, but only if Libya can give foreigners security and prevent harassment," said Mr Ezoba, 24, waiting by the tarmac in Tripoli for a flight home last week.

Civil war that toppled Muammar Qaddafi has also cost Libya much of its workforce, posing authorities a new challenge: balancing vows to start controlling migration with the need for foreign labour.

For years, Qaddafi opened Libya's borders to up to a million labourers mainly from Egypt and sub-Saharan countries. After fighting broke out in February, most fled.

"The knock-on effect is huge," said Sami Zaptia, the head of Know Libya, a business consultancy in Tripoli. "Menial jobs, everything that's labour-intensive, that's really heavy and hard, only expats do that."

The labour exodus has seen commerce slow and living costs rise as crates go unopened and goods lorries stand idle, Mr Zaptia said. It is unclear whether Libyans, not used to manual work, are ready to fill the gap.

"We're an oil country, and Qaddafi sent the wrong message: that people should sit at home on their oil earnings," said Mr Zaptia.

For employers, such as Mohamed El Hadi, 26, a clothes retailer in Tripoli, migrant labour is key to survival.

"I need guys willing to get up at 4am," he said. "Only foreigners will do that."

Six mornings a week, Mr El Hadi loads up his van and drives to markets with assistants Abdullah Ismail and Qabiro Adamo, both 25, from Niger.

On Fridays they go to Bab Al Aziziya, a military parade ground that Qaddafi made his lair after seizing power in 1969. Walls and guard towers were raised and a large house was built, concealed in a stand of trees.

Tunnels linked Bab Al Aziziya with other parts of Tripoli, amplifying a popular sense of Qaddafi passing through the city like a wraith.

In August, National Transitional Council forces broke through the compound's gates. The tunnels were opened, the buildings torched.

The parade ground became a Friday souq, where Mr El Hadi sets up amid vendors hawking shoes, car parts, produce and other goods.

"I'll go home soon. Five years in Libya is a long time," said Mr Ismail, taking down the stall last week with Mr Adamo. "But not before I save up some more money."

Libyan authorities want to start regulating foreign workers as part efforts to end the disorder that prevailed under Qaddafi.

"We want foreign labourers, but with documentation and work permits, as in any other country," said Abdulhakim Elkzuri, vice-president of the Committee on Migration and the Voluntary Departure of Other Nationalities.

Authorities want migrants to leave voluntarily on flights by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and apply for re-entry with work permits, said Mr Elkzuri.

Otherwise, a new interim government named last week may resort to mass deportations, he said.

The potential complications are huge. Thousands of migrants have settled and raised families in Libya over the years.

"I'm sure they'd prefer to have Libyan citizenship," Mr Elkzuri said. "But is Libyan society ready to agree?"

Reports of African mercenaries hired by Qaddafi helped fuel distrust of black migrants and dark-skinned Libyans, with thousands detained on suspicion of serving him.

When anit-Qaddafi militiamen forces rounded up black migrants in Tripoli's old city in August, their Libyan-born daughters flourished Libyan ID papers in protest - to no avail.

About 7,000 people, including many black migrants, are still held without due legal process, according to a report last week by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

Mr Ezoba and his wife, Blessing, 22, slipped into Libya separately through the Sahara desert in 2010, planning to make for Italy.

Settling in Tripoli instead, they were detained in September by militiamen who confiscated their passports and did not return them, he said.

When the IOM arranged a flight to Nigeria, the Ezobas seized the opportunity.

"I have no work and no money," said Mr Ezoba, who was released from detention to take the flight. "If she delivers, how can I take care of her?"

Mrs Ezoba, released four weeks ago with other pregnant women, is expecting the couple's first child in several months.

More foreign workers will take their place, said Mr Zaptia. "Not only will Libya be more attractive, but as it improves it will become very attractive."

Predictions are spreading already of renewed migrant arrivals towards the end of this year, said Mr El Hadi.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the Nigerians departing for home were preparing for post-Libya lives.

"I feel bad," said Lucky Obinya, 29, the first person in the queue to board the IOM charter flight.

"Why?" said Ibrahim Mussa, 40, standing behind him. "You have your life."

"Yes, but I lost my passport, money, everything to present as an achievement," Mr Obinya said. Then he added: "I'm grateful God has given me another chance."

jthorne@thenational.ae