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.
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.
That dynamic was especially true for black-skinned migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living with the reality of racism in a predominantly Arab nation. Migrants from countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia reported facing attacks by opposition groups and government forces.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters that "hundreds of thousands" of African migrants in Libya were the most endangered foreigners in the country, and that few of them had crossed the border in the initial wave of refugees: "I believe that thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk."
The danger is double-edged: The government blamed the Libyan revolt on illegal immigrants, turning pro-government forces against migrant workers. But pro-Qaddafi forces also reportedly tried to hire or force African migrants to fight as mercenaries for the government, turning opposition groups against the African workers. With all sides against them, options are few.
Many Eritreans fled to St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli. Catholicism comprises the largest Christian tradition in a country that is 97 percent Sunni Muslim. (Islam is the state religion.) The majority of Christians in Libya are foreign workers who affiliate with Catholics or a handful of Protestant groups.
Indigenous Libyan Christians are so scarce it's difficult to estimate a number, according Bob Sayer, director of Arab World Initiatives for Pioneers USA, a Florida-based mission organization with workers in North Africa and the Middle East. Though he couldn't confirm an official number, Sayer estimated there are probably fewer than 100.
(Sayer reports that while publicly embracing Christianity remains deeply dangerous for Libyans, broader internet access over the last two years has offered more opportunities for Libyans to learn about Christianity, and he says that Libyan traffic to the group's online Arab media ministry has grown.)
Back in Tripoli, priest Daniel Farrugia is trying to help those who can't leave. In an email interview from the capital city, Farrugia said that Eritreans filled St. Francis Catholic Church on Feb. 27, seeking refuge. The local bishop, Giovanni Martinelli, estimated the crowd at 2,000.
After pleading with Italian officials, Martinelli said the Italian government agreed to accept 54 of the refugees. Farrugia says the rest of the Eritreans-mostly women and children-have few options for now: "It was so painful to send them back to their unsecure shelters unable to give them any sign of hope." The priest says the church is trying to help pay rent for Eritreans who have sought shelter away from their homes.
Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide says that most Eritreans in Libya left oppressively abusive conditions in Eritrea, and many are Christians who fled severe persecution. Returning isn't a safe option: "They face imprisonment, sometimes torture, even death."
They face death in Libya too. Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported that 25 Eritreans were hiding in an underground hole after looters attacked the workers with metal rods, knives, and guns. Eritrean Ashenafi Fehseha told RFI that three of the wounded were dying. He said when two Eritreans in the group left to get help, they were shot dead in the street.
Human Rights Concern Eritrea, an Eritrean advocacy group, reported that a group of armed civilians kidnapped 19 Eritreans from their homes in Tripoli on Feb. 23.
Somali migrants face similar trouble: IRIN News-the news agency of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-reported that some 2,500 Somalis were trapped in Tripoli. Migrants told the news agency that opposition forces had targeted them as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries, forcing them to hide in their homes. For Somalis who had already fled a country of utter chaos, the new upheaval is especially difficult. "I came here about a year and a half ago to go to Europe," Shamso Mohammed told IRIN. "Now I am caught up in the same thing that I fled in Somalia."
UN officials trying to help Libyans and migrants in the eastern city of Benghazi said they couldn't reach migrants in the embattled stronghold of Tripoli. Many migrants in Benghazi reported they couldn't find help either, and Qaddafi called on the city's residents to turn against opposition forces and "rid Benghazi of this betrayal." In Tripoli, Martinelli, the Catholic bishop, said the isolation meant that many Eritreans have "no point of reference apart from the church."
Whether Qaddafi remains in power or not, Gondwe says that the danger could remain serious for any foreigners left in the country, and "open the floodgates wider." Gondwe and Martinelli hope Western nations will open their gates to help some of the most vulnerable sojourners.
Opening the gates for refugees is a thorny issue for European leaders already facing a backlash over illegal immigration. Libya has been a holding area for many migrants hoping to move into Europe. Qaddafi tried to use the issue as leverage after fighting erupted in Libya. "You will have immigration, thousands of people from Libya will invade Europe," he warned a French newspaper. "There will be no one to stop them anymore."
European leaders reacted coolly to Italy's call to form a plan for migrants fleeing to Europe. Germany's interior ministry said that European states shouldn't provoke a migrant influx by talking about it. Sandor Pinter, interior minister of Hungary, declared: "We shouldn't paint the devil on the wall until he appears." Meanwhile, thousands of beleaguered migrants have reached the Italian island of Lampedusa since mid-February.
Aid groups like the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, and Doctors Without Borders are tending to refugees in camps at the Libyan border and warning that conditions are deteriorating for Libyans citizens and other residents in the country suffering from food shortages and a lack of medical care. Witnesses reported that hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties, and the UN estimated that at least 1,000 people had been killed in the fighting by early March.
Ken Isaacs of Samaritan's Purse said the Christian relief organization was working with church partners in Egypt and Tunisia to assist with aid efforts on the Egyptian border, with plans to provide food and water to about 2,500 refugees a day. Maroun Lahham, a Catholic archbishop in Tunisia, said a handful of nuns would assist a Protestant group near the Tunisian border by caring for women and children: "As a church we try to make our contribution, which is still a small drop in a sea of need."
That sea of need extends across the Middle East and North Africa since turmoil began in December. Even as the Tunisian army assisted refugees from Libya, Tunisian officials grappled with the political chaos wrought by a revolt that toppled their own country's president in January. That revolt triggered a flood of protests sweeping more than a dozen nations-including Libya and Egypt-and unleashed uncertainty that promises to plague the region's struggling populations far beyond any one conflict's end.
1942: Muammar Qaddafi born to Bedouin parents in the desert near Sirte, Libya.
1969: Leads a bloodless coup in Benghazi, deposes King Idris and takes control of Libya.
1973: Declares "cultural revolution" and imposes Shariah law.
1975: Publishes Green Book, which describes his political philosophy of "Islamic socialism" and rule by popular committees.
1986: President Ronald Reagan calls Qaddafi the "mad dog of the Middle East" and imposes sanctions, ordering all Americans to leave the country after intelligence links Libya to terrorist attacks in Rome. Libyan bombing of a Berlin disco that injured 40 Americans prompts Reagan to launch air strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi.
1988: In December, terrorists bomb Pan Am Flight 103 and 270 people die when the plane crashes over Lockerbie, Scotland. Officials suspect two Libyan intelligence officials.
1989: After U.S. Navy forces shoot down two Libyan planes, Qaddafi warns that Libya will "meet challenge with challenge."
1992: Qaddafi refuses to hand over the suspects in the Lockerbie bombing, saying, "The evidence against Libya is less than a laughable piece of a fingernail." The UN imposes sanctions.
1999: Qaddafi announces that Libya will hand over the Lockerbie suspects and the UN immediately lifts sanctions.
2003: Libya takes responsibility for Lockerbie bombing, renounces weapons of mass destruction, and promises to pay the families of Pan Am victims from a $2.7 billion fund.
2009: Libya gives the Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali Al-Meghari a hero's welcome home after Scotland frees the bomber eight years into his sentence.
Feb. 17, 2011: Pro-democracy protesters take to the streets of Libya against Qaddafi's regime after arrest of human-rights lawyer Fathi Tarbal. Qaddafi's security forces meet protesters with live ammunition, killing at least 24.
Feb. 23: Rebels take Benghazi and prominent Qaddafi officials defect. Qaddafi forces continue to fire on crowds of unarmed protesters, killing hundreds.
March 1: Qaddafi tells BBC News, "My people love me. . . . They will die to protect me, my people." Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, says Qaddafi is "delusional" and "unfit to lead."
March 2: The UN General Assembly removes Libya from its Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court announces that it will investigate Qaddafi's alleged "crimes against humanity."
March 6: Qaddafi loyalists strike back against rebel-held areas across Libya.
March 7: Qaddafi launches air strikes on key rebel-held oil port of Ras Lanouf to stop rebel march toward Tripoli.
March 10: NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels to consider establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.