Migrant workers caught in Libya conflict
20 July 2012
“When I left the capital, Tripoli, the situation was very bad,” said Salim, a 32-year-old construction worker from Bangladesh. “I saw a lot of demonstrations and fighting. I saw people get beaten and we could hear shots.”
Caritas Lebanon staff at the Saloum border crossing.
The Arab Spring saw uprisings across North Africa, the Gulf and the Middle East. Conflict in Libya in particular put civilians in peril. Among them were over a million migrants workers from Africa and Asia.
“I had been working in Libya for a total of four years and only came back for visits to Bangladesh,” said Salim. “My wife stayed in Bangladesh and last year, our daughter Anise was born, so working in Libya and sending home money was a good way for me to support my family.”
Libya was one of the major destination countries for Bangladeshi migrants. Around 50000 to 60000 Bangladeshis lived there. Most were employed in the construction sector. When the fighting began, the companies the migrants had worked for had to shut their doors. Many fled to the Egyptian and Tunisian borders.
Sometimes, their employers gave the migrants money so that they could leave the country. Most of them pooled what they had to rent buses that would take them to the Tunisian border. But on the way, their money, electronic devices, mobile phones and even their SIM cards were often stolen.
“I didn’t feel safe there anymore, the situation was very dangerous,” said Salim. “As a foreigner, you had to be careful not to be drawn into the unrest. My mobile phone and some of my money was stolen, but apart from that, I was lucky nothing happened to me.”
Caritas sent two emergency teams to Libya’s borders with Tunisia and Egypt to provide emergency aid such as food, healthcare and counselling to thousands of stranded migrants. Caritas reception centres welcomed those fleeing, helped them find aid and a way home.
Supporting the Bangladeshi migrants was particularly challenging because not only were there so many of them, but because most spoke only Bengali with sometimes a few words of English. Caritas Bangladesh helped by sending three of its social workers to join the Caritas emergency team.
“My wife saw the unrest on T V and was very worried about me,” said Salim. “I reassured her by calling whenever I could and telling her I was fine, but she is glad to have me back here now”.