Africans workers of unknown origin at the port of Benghazi. Boat crews prohibited them from boarding because they were only authorized to evacuate certain nationals. February 26, 2011.

© 2011 Franco Pagetti/VII for Human Rights Watch

(Benghazi) - Thousands of foreign workers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have been left homeless and penniless by the recent fighting in Libya and remain stranded in the coastal city of Benghazi and on the border with Tunisia, Human Rights Watch said today.

Evacuation efforts have not adequately included the plight of African workers, Human Rights Watch said.

The African workers are particularly under threat due to popular anger over Muammar Gaddafi's reported use of sub-Saharan African mercenaries to quash popular protests. Human Rights Watch has not independently verified the presence of foreign mercenaries in the country.

"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 Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who is in Benghazi. "The sub-Saharan African workers are in dire need of evacuation because of the threats they face in Libya."

Human Rights Watch researchers on the Tunisian border with Libya report that the Tunisian authorities are sporadically closing their border with Libya for a few hours every day, apparently because they lack capacity to accommodate the large numbers of people seeking entry. About 40,000 people are stranded on the Libyan side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"Governments that have been able to rescue their own nationals should join in an international effort to evacuate tens of thousands of highly vulnerable foreign nationals," Bouckaert said. "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."

Over the last eight days, an estimated 13,500 people from China, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Vietnam, and other countries have been evacuated from Benghazi by cruise ships, ferries, and military vessels, according to volunteers assisting the trapped foreigners.

On February 28, 2011, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed the evacuation from Benghazi of thousands of Moroccans, Algerians, and Syrians by two ferries and a Syrian military vessel. The ferry crews denied sub-Saharan Africans entry to the evacuation ships, explaining that certain governments had commissioned them to evacuate only their nationals and that the crews did not have the authority to take on other nationalities. On February 26, Human Rights Watch witnessed men in military and civilian clothing beating with sticks and knives two Africans who tried to jump on a departing Tunisian ship.

Other African workers told Human Rights Watch that Libyan civilians had attacked them over the past week, and most said that they had lost almost all of their possessions in the violence. Many also claimed that their employers had not paid their salaries for the past month, leaving them destitute.

Roland Omokpia, a 30-year-old electrician from Nigeria, told Human Rights Watch that he had come to Libya in 2006 and opened a shop to do electrical work, but had been forced to flee without his possessions.

"I can't go back to my shop, because they are looking to kill blacks," he said. "The youth came to our area and threatened me, saying, ‘There is the black, the black who Gaddafi hired,' so I had to run away."

Festos, a Haitian electrician who did not wish to give his family name, told Human Rights Watch that he had come to Libya in 2007 to work at a Turkish construction company. On February 25, he said, a group of roughly 1,000 Libyan civilians came to the company armed with machetes and guns and attacked the workers.

"They broke everything and stole everything," Festos told Human Rights Watch.

He went to the house of an African friend nearby, where 19 Africans were staying. Later that night, he said, armed men broke down their door and attacked them again.

"We all ran away," he said. "I just needed to save my life."

Sub-Saharan Africans appear to be particularly vulnerable because of reports that Gaddafi flew in African mercenaries to attack anti-government protesters. Human Rights Watch has documented racist attacks on African migrants in Libya in reports from 2006 and 2009.

On the Tunisian border with Libya, Human Rights Watch interviewed six Ghanaian construction workers who fled Libya days ago after being trapped in their company compound for one week in the Libyan city of Naroute. One of the men, Christopher, said that a local resident defended him as gangs of youth attempted to break into the compound, accusing him and his fellow Ghanaians of being African mercenaries working for Gaddafi, and threatening to kill them. They also said they had been stopped about 10 times at checkpoints along the way to the border manned by people in civilian clothes, who took their phones and vigorously searched them, including numerous strip searches.

Human Rights Watch spoke by phone to another Ghanaian worker in Tripoli who said he witnessed an angry crowd take away his roommate, Felix, and four other African men, accusing them of being mercenaries. He said that he and his fellow Ghanaian housemates are trapped in Tripoli, too scared to leave their homes for fear they will be beaten or killed by crowds mistaking them for Gaddafi's hired guns.

In Benghazi, the largest city in Eastern Libya, new de facto authorities have established a separate camp for displaced sub-Saharan Africans near Benghazi University, which currently houses at least 1,200 displaced African workers. Over 400 are Ghanaian nationals, but Human Rights Watch interviewed displaced African workers at the camp from all over the continent, including Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cote D'Ivoire, Sudan, and Cameroon, as well as other people of African origin such as Haitians.

Volunteers are making their best efforts to assist the displaced Africans with food and water, but conditions remain crowded, unsanitary, and insecure. During a Human Rights Watch visit to the camp on February 28, residents said that armed Libyan men had entered the camp just hours before and had stolen computers and other valuables.

"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 said. "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. Mounting a complex and potentially expensive evacuation for their people is probably beyond the capacity of many African countries."

The new de facto authorities in Benghazi are housing 2,300 non-African migrants at a separate camp at a former factory compound inside the Benghazi port. Almost half of the displaced non-African workers at the camp are Bangladeshi nationals, but the Benghazi authorities estimated that the camp is also housing 500 to 600 Vietnamese, 300 to 400 Thai, 100 Filipinos, 100 Pakistanis, and smaller numbers of people from other countries.

In addition to the estimated 3,500 people in the two camps, thousands of additional foreign workers are housed in other company compounds awaiting evacuation. At least 1,200 Bangladeshis are at a separate compound, as are 300 Filipinos.

On Libya's border with Tunisia, the Tunisian authorities have generally been welcoming, Human Rights Watch said, but they have periodically closed the border for short periods because of their inability to accommodate the large numbers of people seeking entry.

"The key to keeping the Tunisian border open to sub-Saharans fleeing targeted attacks is to relieve the congestion at the border," Bouckaert said. "Migrant workers from Egypt and other countries should be helped to get home, so desperate people trying to flee Libya can get out."

Background on the Libyan Crisis for Migrant Workers
Libya is home to over one million foreign workers employed in the various sectors of its economy, including the oil, construction, agriculture, and services industries. Foreign workers come from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. They range from management to unskilled and undocumented day laborers. Following the outbreak of protests in mid-February 2011, many companies and factories reportedly came under assault and were looted by criminal gangs and other armed elements. After unconfirmed reports emerged that Gaddafi had brought in sub-Saharan African mercenaries to attack anti-government protesters, African migrant workers in particular became the target of violent attacks.

To date, at least 140,000 foreign nationals have left Libya over its land borders, according to UNHCR and IOM. This includes an estimated 69,000, most of them Egyptians, who have crossed to Egypt and more than 75,000 people of various nationalities who have crossed into Tunisia. Another 40,000 people have not yet been able to cross the border from Libya into Tunisia. Over 10,000 Egyptian workers remain stranded in Tunisia, awaiting evacuation by Egyptian authorities. Individual countries have also carried out significant evacuation efforts for their own nationals: China has evacuated nearly 30,000 Chinese, and the European Union has evacuated an additional 10,000 Europeans.

While international law does not require third countries to evacuate or repatriate migrants during emergencies of the kind currently occurring in Libya, in circumstances where particular nationality groups are targeted for persecution, as appears to be the particular risk for sub-Saharan Africans trying to escape from Libya, there is an obligation not to expose them to the risk of such persecution.

Foreign nationals subject to persecution are not refugees so long as their home governments are willing and able to protect them. But until they are able to avail themselves of the protection of their own governments they have essentially the same protection needs as any other refugees, and the international community is obligated to prevent their expulsion or return to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened. Any foreign national who has engaged in serious crimes as a mercenary would remain accountable for his crimes.

Human Rights Watch calls on governments, including those that have succeeded in evacuating their own nationals from Libya, to respond immediately and positively to UNHCR and IOM's joint appeal on March 1 for a massive evacuation of tens of thousands of Egyptians and third country nationals who have fled to Tunisia from Libya, including in-kind contributions of emergency military transport. These governments should also engage in an international effort to evacuate foreign nationals stranded in Benghazi who are seeking to leave Libya.