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Migrants make it work in Misrata

Karlos Zurutuza Misrata, Libya
January 12, 2017

Libya's third-largest city offers opportunities to foreigners and migrants eager to work, but it's also a dead end for those trying to get to Europe. Karlos Zurutuza reports.

Libyen Flüchtlinge in Misrata
Image: Ricardo García Vilanova/Photographic Social Vision

It's almost impossible to get lost in Misrata. The massive Libyan flag flying from its city center is visible from almost every corner of this city of 500,000 inhabitants. Its mast arises from the very heart of the bazaar, a meeting point for those selling fruit, second-hand mobile phones, Turkish-made clothes, or simply popcorn. 

Many are foreigners like Abdula, a Sudanese who has been running his own hairdresser salon for three years. With prices ranging from 3 to 5 dinars (2-3 euros) for a haircut, Abdula was doing fairly well until the brutal depreciation of the Libyan currency. Today it's increasingly difficult for him to send money back to his family in Khartoum.

"I'll keep working until I've saved enough money to go back home and get married. I'm already 35, you know," he told DW.

Abdula said he chose Misrata "for its peaceful environment, and also for the big chances to make ends meet." Alongside Zuwara - a coastal town 100 kilometers west of Tripoli - it's viewed as the safest city in Libya.

He may be right. Misrata enjoys significantly high levels of security by current Libyan standards. The local armed forces led the offensive that ousted "Islamic State" fighters from their Libyan stronghold in Sirte. However, Walid Mohamed Abu Sela, captain of a police squad that patrols the streets every night, says that's only half the story.

"Both Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya's biggest cities, host people from all over the country and from almost every tribe, but here we are all from Misrata; we all know each other," he told DW.

The people from Misrata are not the only ones who mingle within tribal lines. Whereas fellow Sudanese make up the bulk of Abdula's clientele, Nigerians prefer two hairdressers a few meters away. They are run by Issa and Ahmed, two brothers who have been based in Libya for 15 years. Someone in their native Kano told them that Libya was a good place to work. But that was before they had to struggle to pay the 700 dinars for the rent and the salaries of their employees.

Twenty-seven-year-old Mohamed is among the latter. He agrees to meet after work, at a mobile store attended by a fellow Nigerian called Jeremy. Mohamed embarked on the exhausting and perilous desert route across Niger to reach Libya. Once in Sebha - Libya's main human trafficking hub in the south - things got worse.

"I was kidnapped by a gang and beaten on a daily basis for two months until my family back home paid $700 (664 euros) in ransom," he told DW. "The whole city is overrun by criminal gangs who keep people like us in places called 'ghettos.' It's the hunt for the Nigerian and the Malian down there," he added.

Libyen Flüchtlinge in Misrata
Although there is work to be had, many migrants, like Salih, want to reach Europe to get better medical careImage: Ricardo García Vilanova/Photographic Social Vision

Misrata as a safe haven

Standing by the counter, Jeremy said he went through a similar situation in the south, but that such a thing is unheard of in Misrata.

"Working in this shop is no big deal, but back in Nigeria we don't even have electricity. Here I have a computer and an Internet connection," explained Jeremy. As a graphic designer, technology is essential to complement his salary. "I make business cards, posters, logos for companies and organizations ... I can reproduce any design with this laptop," he added proudly.

Nevertheless, Jeremy is an exception amid Libya's foreign workforce. As construction workers or street sweepers, sub-Saharan nationals and Bangladeshis make up the lower tier of the job pyramid. A step above are Egyptians working as cooks or as shop assistants. Tunisians who left their country after the collapse of the tourism sector can be found working at the receptions of Libyan hotels, while Moroccans have a reputation of being skilled carpenters, plumbers or mechanics.

Jeremy, Mohamed and Abdala are among many migrants who have discarded the idea of crossing the Mediterranean on a dinghy. They focus on working and sending money back home. They're considered to be "legal" workers, but for the time being, enforcing the rule of law is not a priority in Libya.

"Foreign workers in a strictly legal situation are only those contracted by an employer or institution when there's no qualified Libyan to take the position," Othman Bensasi, chief of staff at the Ministry of Labor told DW from his office in downtown Tripoli. However, the official admitted the law had to be loose to accommodate the foreign workforce.

"Arabs don't work in sectors such as construction or cleaning so we need foreigners to do these jobs, as well as several others," he said. 

Dealing with traffickers

For many foreigners, though, Libya is merely an inevitable stop on their way to Europe. Getting access to Misrata's Karareem detention center is only possible after getting the right authorization from the Ministry of Interior in Tripoli. It's set up in a former two-story school on the outskirts of the city, just by the remains of an old church dating from the Italian occupation.

Kalte is one of 100 hundred inmates lying on mattresses inside the old classes. The 17-year-old Ivorian told DW he had not been mistreated by the four guards, and that he felt sick but had no way of telling the doctors because they did not speak French.

Medical care has also been hard to come by for Salih, especially since he lost his right leg in an accident. "In Europe, I would have surely got a real prosthetic leg to replace this piece of wood a carpenter made for me back in Niger," the 38-year-old migrant told DW.

Libyen Flüchtlinge in Misrata
Female migrants are the most vulnerable and endure sexual abuse or end up in prostitution networksImage: Ricardo García Vilanova/Photographic Social Vision

The top floor is home to about 20 women, from Mali and Nigeria. Amita, 20, told DW they had all been arrested when they were driven by smugglers toward a nearby beach where they were supposed to jump on a boat. "We do not know how long they will keep us here," added Peace, 22.

"We never bring foreign workers here, only those dealing with traffickers," Mohamed Kahul, the director of the center told DW. According to the official, repatriating the inmates was desirable but highly unlikely.

"Most of the embassies left long ago and we have no resources to send them back home, and not even to keep them here," Kahul admitted, adding that the few successful repatriation cases are mainly thanks to the support offered by the International Organization for Migration.

For Amita, Peace and many others, going back to Nigeria is an option they do not want to consider.