TRIPOLI As Libya's economy re-awakens after years of sanctions, the desert country has become a magnet for migrant workers who risk arrest and intimidation for a salary that keeps families back home out of poverty.

Libya's government is using fast-growing energy revenues to rebuild decrepit infrastructure and is giving a growing role to the private sector, turning Tripoli into a building site for hotels, clinics, schools and apartment blocks.

With an estimated three quarters of Libyans on the state payroll, most prefer to leave the new jobs to foreigners.

The north African country has up to two million immigrants compared to a local population of around six million, according to government reports cited by the US State Department.

The government has said it aims to recruit one million more foreign workers over five years, including Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, to narrow a deficit of skills and labour.

Strains are already appearing between the newcomers and a local population struggling to come to terms with rapid change after decades of isolation.

On a hot evening in the Libyan capital, tempers boil over as a crowd of migrant workers wait outside a bank to send money home to relatives.

They surge forward and cries ring out as men wielding sticks push them back and slam shut the bank's doors.

“I'll come back tomorrow. It can get dangerous on the streets at night,” said factory worker Lee, who makes window frames to support a wife and two children in the Philippines.

He says he earns $500 a month, compared to $300 back home.

He is fed and has free accommodation but says the air in his shared dormitory is stifling and he cannot sleep.

After seven months, he is unimpressed with the locals.

“People here don't see us as their equals because we look foreign and some of us are Christians,” he said. “Children sometimes throw stones when my back is turned.”

“They hate us,” said Michael Barhe, an Ethiopian. “If they see you drink water in Ramazan, they will stab you. A Libyan tried to stab me and I ran away.”


The end of sanctions has let loose an entrepreneurial spirit in Tripoli that lacked an outlet when sanctions forbade imports of most consumer goods.

Celebrations this month marking 40 years since Muammer Qadhafi's coup vaunted Libya's role as a gateway to Africa and Qadhafi has called for free movement of Africans as part of his dream of a United States of Africa.

But his government seems unable to decide whether to keep its migrants and legalise their status or punish and expel them.

Periodic crackdowns on those lacking official papers and threats of mass deportations have come to little.

Migrants are still arriving from across the Sahara to escape poverty or conflict. Some report seeing bodies of migrants who fell from crowded trucks deep in the desert.

As long as Libyans are unwilling to mix and lay concrete, cook in hotels or mow their lawns, the migrants appear too important to lose.

“The government is blaming Libyans for not employing Libyans and is even encouraging Egyptians to go home. The problem is, no Libyan is willing to get out of bed for less than 20 dinars,” one Libyan businessman said on condition of anonymity.

Legal limbo

Tripoli's streets are quiet during the hottest hours of the day as residents rest during the holy Ramazan month of fasting.

Sub-Saharan migrants wait with their tools in the shadows of street hoardings or under bridges for piecemeal labouring work.

Yetemgeta Mulu, 32, has spent a year in Libya building a factory on the outskirts of Tripoli. “We do everything by hand, even carrying big steel girders. There are no machines,” he said. “My friend broke his leg but he got no help and had to find treatment himself.”

The migrants live in a permanent legal limbo. Even those who sweep the streets and wear a uniform often lack the paperwork that could keep them out of jail.

“If you occupy a formal position here, it doesn't necessarily mean you have a regular contract,” said Laurence Hart, chief of mission at United Nations migration body IOM.

Some migrants are intent on longer journeys to Europe and stay only to earn money to pay traffickers for passage to Italy.

The boats are often overcrowded and the migrants risk drowning or being thrown into prison, mistreated and forced to pay a bribe to leave, according to those who have attempted the journey.

Today, the chance of making it to Italy has dwindled after Italy and Libya stepped up cooperation and coastguard patrols.

The number who made it to Italy alive between May and mid-August was 860, compared to more than 10,000 in the same period last year, according to the UN refugee agency.

Migrants say the risks have grown, and so have prices. A place on a boat cost $1,400 four months ago. It has now risen to $1,800.

Mulu's two attempts landed him in prison and he has resolved to return to Ethiopia through a voluntary return programme.

“There is no way of changing your way of life in Ethiopia,” he said. “But I see no alternative but to go home. At least my family will be happy to see me and maybe we will have better luck now.”—Reuters