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Associated Press/Photo by Ben Curtis

Snared

Libya | Migrant workers trapped in Libya face worsening danger in a country that has turned against them

United Nations staffers working near the Tunisian-Libyan border issued a warning for the international community this week: The situation for masses of migrant workers fleeing war-torn Libya is reaching "a crisis point."

For some migrants, the crisis is especially acute: Africans who have fled to Libya from oppressive countries like Somalia and Eritrea are finding themselves trapped in a country that is falling apart, and they see no rescue on the horizon.

An estimated 180,000 people have fled Libya since opposition forces began seizing territory and demanding the ouster of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The struggle between the opposing sides has grown fierce, with reports of at least 1,000 dead in battles and government attacks on civilians. Qaddafi has vowed to die a "martyr" instead of leaving Libya. His son, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, has pledged his father's forces will fight "until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet."

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That fighting has prompted a mass exodus of tens of thousands of migrant workers living in the country. By Thursday, a long line formed at the border with Tunisia, with many migrants sleeping outside in bone-chilling cold for days, waiting to leave Libya. (For many, Tunisia represented the closest border crossing.)

Most of the migrant workers are Egyptians who came to Libya seeking jobs in the oil-rich nation when Egypt's economy floundered. By Wednesday morning, thousands of Egyptians were on their way home, courtesy of Egyptian government officials paying for flights to evacuate its citizens back to their home country, U.K. officials have helped with the transport process.

Though thousands of Egyptians are heading home, it's a homecoming fraught with uncertainty: Many migrant workers were the sole breadwinners for their families. The Egyptian labor ministry estimates that these workers send some $254 million back to their families in Egypt each year. Economists say the loss of those remittances will damage the still-reeling, post-revolution Egyptian economy, and that landing jobs in Egypt will be difficult for those who had already left the country to find work.

For other foreigners, the outlook is even darker: Immigrants from Eritrea who fled one of the most oppressive regimes on the continent deeply fear returning to a dangerous homeland. Even if they wanted to return, Eritrean officials aren't seeking to evacuate their citizens.

For now, the refugees are trapped in the bloody Libyan conflict and finding both sides pitted against them: As the chaos in Libya unfolded, Qaddafi announced that illegal immigrants had caused the trouble, turning pro-government forces against migrant workers. With hypocritical force, the government then tried to recruit migrant workers to fight for the pro-Qaddafi forces, turning opposition groups against the migrants. Workers at Christian Solidarity Worldwide-a U.K.-based religious advocacy group-say sources in Libya are reporting severe violence against Eritreans, with some attacks leading to death.

Giovanni Martinelli-a Catholic bishop and the vicar of Tripoli-says hundreds of Eritreans showed up at St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli last Sunday seeking help. Many of the Eritreans are Christians that fled persecution in their home country.

The bishop says that the Italian government has agreed to take 54 of the refugees. The others are taking refuge in nearby homes and wondering if they will survive the upheaval. Even if they do survive, they wonder what's next for them in a country already often hostile toward non-Arab Africans. The bishop is pleading for help from other Western nations willing to receive the Eritreans. "My thoughts go out especially to the women and children," he said.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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