As wealthier nations send boats and planes to rescue their citizens from the violence in Libya, a new refugee crisis is taking shape on the outskirts of Tripoli, where thousands of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa have been trapped with scant food and water, no international aid and little hope of escape.

The migrants — many of them illegal immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria who have long constituted an impoverished underclass in Libya — live amid piles of garbage, sleep in makeshift tents of blankets strung from fences and trees, and breathe fumes from a trench of excrement dividing their camp from the parking lot of Tripoli's airport.

For dinner on Monday night two men killed a scrawny, half-plucked chicken by dunking it in a bowl of water boiled on a garbage fire, then laboured to hack it apart with a dull knife and cook it over an open fire. Some residents of the camp are as young as Essem Ighalo, nine days old, who arrived on his second day of life and has yet to see a doctor. Many refugees insisted that they had seen deaths from hunger and disease every night.

Desperate contingent

The airport refugees, along with tens of thousands of other African migrants lucky enough to make it across the border to Tunisia, are the most desperate contingent of a vast exodus that has already sent almost 200,000 foreigners fleeing the country since the outbreak of the popular revolt against Muammar Qadhafi nearly three weeks ago.

Sub-Saharan Africans make up the vast majority of the estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants among Libya's population of 6.5 million, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many were desperately poor people made even more so by investments of up to $1,000 each to pay smugglers to bring them across Libya's southern border for a chance at better work in its oil economy.

Their flight has emptied the streets of thousands of day labourers who played a crucial, if largely unheralded, role in sustaining Libya's economy. Their absence has played a role in halting construction projects that had been rising across the skyline.

They are trapped in part because most lack passports or other documents necessary to board a plane or cross the border. Few can afford a plane ticket, either. They say they are afraid to leave the airport or try their luck on the roads to the border for fear of assaults by Libyan citizens or at militia checkpoints.

They complain bitterly of betrayal by their home governments, which have failed to help evacuate them even as Egyptian, Bangladeshi and Chinese migrant workers who crowded the airport a week ago have found a way out.

And international aid workers, who have raced to minister to the hundreds of thousands camped on the borders, say the migrants trapped at the airport remain beyond their reach. The Libyan government's tight security and the threat of violence on the streets of Tripoli have apparently prevented any international aid groups from reaching the makeshift camps.

“We are operating out of Benghazi,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy of the International Organization for Migration, referring to the eastern Libyan city that is the headquarters of the rebellion. “But unfortunately because of the conditions we can't help them out of Tripoli.”

The outbreak of violence in Tripoli around February 20 sent migrants of all kinds fleeing for the airport. Until recently, desperate hordes of all nationalities were sleeping packed together on the floors of the terminals or in the fields and parking lots outside. Guards with whips and clubs beat them back to clear the entrance.


Despite Mr. Qadhafi's brotherly pan-African rhetoric, racial xenophobia is common here. Many Libyans, ethnically Arab, look down on Chinese, Bangladeshis and darker-skinned Africans, in that order. Many African refugees here and in the camps on the Tunisian border say Libyans often addressed them as abd, or slave.

Perhaps as many as 100,000 refugees, most of them sub-Saharan Africans, have made it to the Tunisian camps, where groups like the Red Crescent, the Muslim counterpart to the Red Cross, care for the sick. The United States has lent planes to fly Egyptian refugees home from Tunisia.

But the crowds left at the airport, now almost exclusively African, have no such support. Some have been there for two weeks or more.

Several said that someone perhaps with a local charity, perhaps with the Libyan government gave them each a biscuit. On Monday, refugees holding bottles lined up at the back of a tanker truck dispensing water. But an exploitative economy has also sprung up. A group of burly, well-dressed men stood by a sport utility vehicle in the parking lot holding thick stacks of dollars, euros and Libyan dinars and offering to change money at usurious rates. Many of the workers had been paid in foreign currency but need to change it to buy a Coke, a candy bar, or perhaps an emaciated chicken from the vendors who have turned up to profit from the camps. Several refugees said a live chicken cost about $8 in the camp, more than four times what it might have cost before the crisis. — New York Times News Service

More In: Comment | Opinion