Somali labourer flees from discrimination and violence in Libya

Telling the Human Story, 10 March 2011

© UNHCR/A.Branthwaite
Fuad, a Somali, with his wife and infant son. They fled to Choucha camp three days after being attacked and threatened in their home in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

CHOUCHA CAMP, Tunisia, March 10 (UNHCR) When a group of young Libyan men broke into his home in Tripoli and threatened to rape his wife, Fuad fought back. He ended up with a broken elbow while protecting his wife and three other women in the house.

It was a shocking experience for the 27-year-old Somali and one that made him decide to flee the country, but this was no isolated case. UNHCR staff interviewing foreigners at Libya's borders with Tunisia and Egypt have heard many stories of attacks against people from countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has condemned the treatment of this vulnerable group, noting that the attacks appeared to be linked to reports that the Libyan government was using mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to retain power.

"Discrimination has always been pronounced in this North African country. In the past month it has become intense," said one observer.

Fuad fled his native Somalia in 1999, when he was just 15. The country has been in turmoil since 1991, when President Siad Barre was toppled from power. Today, it is too dangerous for Fuad and his wife and five-month-old son to return.

He initially found refuge at a camp in Kenya after leaving Somalia. But three years ago, with no hope of being resettled, he made his way to Uganda and then on to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Like thousands of other young men from sub-Saharan Africa, he decided to make the risky journey to Libya in a quest to find work and onward passage to Europe.

Fuad paid people smugglers to take him on the 10-day journey to Tripoli. But on the fourth day the driver, who was drunk, drove up the side of a dune and rolled the vehicle. There were about 60 passengers in the back of the truck and eight of them were crushed to death.

"I was thinking that I was dying. I was remembering my childhood, I wanted to die," recalled Fuad, who suffered a broken leg and has a scar as a permanent memento of the traumatic journey.

One of the men had a Thuraya handheld satellite phone and called the Sudanese authorities and the survivors returned to Khartoum. Determined to get to Libya, Fuad set off for a second time once his leg had healed. The smugglers agreed to take him at no extra charge.

"We are all looking to the future. We all wanted to go to the ocean to reach Europe," he said of his migration to Libya. He said he loves Somalia, but would go back only "over my dead body." He probably now thinks the same about Libya, where he lived for more than two years.

Aside from suffering the broken elbow when he was hit by one of the intruders with a wooden club, Fuad and his family were also verbally abused by the Lybian men, who also demanded money and cell phones. "What are you doing here! What are you doing in this country?," one man asked Fuad, before threatening to rape his wife and her friends.

"We [Fuad and his male Somali flatmates] said, 'if you try to go for our women we will all die together,'" said Fuad, recalling his decision to fight back.

The road trip to the border was also an ordeal. He and his family found space on a small bus, which brought them to the border at Ras Adjir last Friday after running a gauntlet of road blocks, where they were harassed by soldiers. "They act like they are going to kill you and then they take all your money," he said, echoing the testimony of many others who have made the same journey.

For now, Fuad feels safe in the UNHCR-run Choucha transit camp and he still harbours hopes of getting to the industrialized world. UNHCR's Guterres has asked resettlement countries to consider taking some of the most vulnerable people coming out of Libya, especially those who cannot be sent back to their home countries.

But now Fuad has set his sights on going somewhere even further away than Europe. "San Diego, Ohio, New York, Chinatown, Minneapolis," he says, listing the places in the United States where he would now be happy to live.

By Andrew Purvis in Choucha Camp, Tunisia