North Africa’s refugees suffer pattern of displacement

When 65-year old Amina arrived in Tunisia’s Choucha refugee camp in March this year from Tripoli, a new waiting game began for her and her family.

She has spent the past two years hoping for resettlement in the US. But the recent conflict in Libya has meant that she and her family have had to put that idea on hold. In 2010 Gaddafi closed the UNHCR office in Tripoli and as fighting intensified in Libya, Amina, her daughter and baby granddaughter were forced to leave the country.

For Amina, the displacement is a familiar pattern. In the mid-1990s, she fled fighting in her native Somalia and arrived in Libya with her young daughter Nadifa, then eight. When they first arrived, there were few Somalis in Libya and they were given a refugee card and some money.

Amina worked as a housemaid in Tripoli for a Libyan policeman. But relations deteriorated after her employer threatened her with a gun and withheld her wages.

Both she and her daughter struggle with serious health issues. Amina has diabetes and a botched operation has left her with bone damage. Her daughter has been diagnosed with a hole in her heart, suffers from asthma and has trouble breathing.

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“Because of all the dust and sand, my daughter struggles to even get to the toilet. I have to go and collect food myself, and one of my arms is broken, so it is difficult. The Tunisian military hospital gave my daughter the wrong inhaler for her asthma, so she has had to stop using it,” she told Amnesty International.

When the fighting began, hundreds of thousands of people anxious to leave the insecurity of Libya fled to neighbouring Tunisia. The majority of them have since been repatriated back to their country of origin.

However, along with the almost 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Choucha, Amina and her family cannot go home because of the conflict in their own country.

Before the uprising began, Libya was “home” to between 1.5 million and 2.5million foreign nationals. Most came from Sub-Saharan African countries, including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya lived under constant threat of being arrested and detained in appalling conditions for “migration-related offences”. . Black Africans in particular were vulnerable to exploitation and racist attacks by ordinary Libyans.

“Dark times”On Egypt’s Libyan border lies the Saloum border post, where over 1,000 asylum-seekers and refugees who have fled Libya are stranded.

Meron Abebe (not her real name), an Ethiopian woman in her early twenties has also been unable to return home since her father was imprisoned after the 2005 elections. When Amnesty International met her in Saloum, she was eight months pregnant.

After three years working as a housemaid in Khartoum, she fled to Libya when she heard rumours at her local church that the Sudanese government had begun deporting Ethiopians.

Her first months in Libya were spent locked up in the notorious Kufra prison, where she was held for illegal entry. She was eventually released, only to be imprisoned for a further five months in Benghazi.

“After I was released I started working in Benghazi as a cleaner and my husband worked for the same household, taking care of the cars. My employers were good,” she told Amnesty International.

“When the conflict started, the treatment of Sub-Saharan Africans by Libyans got worse. Africans were at the mercy of Libyans. They pass judgment on you. Libyan men came into our houses without any invitation and our men could not protect us”, she said.

Meron told Amnesty International delegates that after Libyans violently attacked her Chadian landlord, she and her husband decided they could no longer risk staying on. They joined other Ethiopians who were sheltered with the Red Crescent and eventually came to Saloum.

Meron Abebe has now been formally accepted as a refugee.

“It will be very good if we could get help in these dark times. If I am going to perish here, I might have well have stayed on in Benghazi,” she said..