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Fight or flight

Libya's upheaval triggers life-or-death migration-up to 20,000 a day-to countries with enough chaos of their own

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

For Nigerian Ike Emanuel, a perilous trek across Libya's harsh desert turned into an unexpected funeral procession for the youngest member of his family:

The 35-year-old migrant worker said he buried the tiny body of his infant daughter after she died of exposure during the flight from Libya's chaos. "We spent three days in the desert and she was a little baby of six months, and she could not endure the cold," Emanuel told Reuters on March 2. "I am going home with nothing."

Emanuel wasn't alone: By early March, more than 200,000 refugees had fled across Libya's borders in a desperate attempt to escape the bloody battles raging between opposition groups and forces loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The Libyan exodus created one of the harshest migration crises in years and promised an even harsher humanitarian crisis: The UN projects that more than 1 million people fleeing Libya or living inside the country will need humanitarian aid.

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But the swelling crisis isn't just big-it's also bewildering: The first wave of refugees represented mostly migrant workers from a dozen different nations. For them, fleeing Libya means fleeing the jobs that supported their families back home.

Other migrants fear going home more than staying in Libya: Workers from severely oppressive regimes like Eritrea and Somalia know that returning to those countries could mean imprisonment or death. Many Eritrean Christians fleeing religious persecution in their home country are now stuck in Libya's crossfire. But staying may be just as dangerous: Pro-government forces in the Arab country blamed the upheaval on illegal migrants, while anti-government forces believed that migrants were fighting for Qaddafi.

Meanwhile, aid groups reported deteriorating conditions for millions of Libyan citizens, and the UN's World Food Program reported that the Libyan chaos cut off a critical route to deliver aid to tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad. Aid convoys will now have to cross the dangerous region of Darfur to reach them.

The tangled web of suffering underscores that Libya's revolt carries sweeping repercussions for an already beleaguered region-and won't ease quickly or easily.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that before fighting erupted in mid-February, some 2.5 million migrants lived in Libya, including an estimated 1.5 million illegal workers. Most came seeking jobs, including work in the country's booming oil industry.

Nearly 1 million of the workers immigrated from neighboring Egypt. When refugees began fleeing Libya in February, the UN reported that a majority were Egyptian workers. The Egyptian government began repatriating Egyptians who had fled to Tunisia-the nearest border crossing for many-and the United States joined other nations helping airlift Egyptians home.

For most Egyptians, it's a homecoming fraught with uncertainty: The workers return to a post-revolution country without a functioning government in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak's ouster. They also face a floundering job market in a deeply weakened economy.

That economy may grow weaker with the loss of remittances from Libya: The Egyptian labor department estimated that Egyptians living in Libya sent $254 million to Egypt each year. Landing new jobs will be difficult, creating a hard plight for migrants who were the sole breadwinners for their families.

Economic woes also await workers returning to more than a dozen nations, including Bangladesh, Bosnia, the Philippines, India, Romania, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. But for many refugees, leaving Libya has been the first challenge. More than half of those fleeing poured into Tunisia, describing long treks across the Libyan desert and cold nights on the ground before crossing. Many refugees reported that pro-government forces stole their cash and confiscated their phones-the only possessions many of them carried.

Once they reached Tunisia, the refugees settled in hastily built camps that quickly overflowed at the border crossing. Aid workers reported conditions eased as some refugees began leaving, but other refugees without money or identification wondered how long they would have to stay. (Many migrant workers had relinquished their passports to their Libyan employers and couldn't retrieve them before fleeing.) Meanwhile, aid groups braced for another influx.

That influx slowed drastically by March 5: Aid workers reported that the numbers of refugees crossing the border had dropped from a peak 20,000 per day to 1,400 per day. UN officials worried that increased fighting-or armed forces-was prohibiting refugees from crossing the border. They anxiously waited on satellite images taken over Libya to find out why the flood had slowed to a trickle.

For many migrants living in Libyan cities like Tripoli, the answer to that question was already clear: They were afraid to leave their homes, much less attempt to leave the country.

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