12:00 AM, March 15, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 15, 2011

On The Spot

Crisis deepens

Thousands of African workers flee Libya, join Bangladeshis at border camp

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Morshed Ali Khan from Choucha at Tunisia-Libya border

Hungry, tired and penniless thousands of stranded Bangladeshi men at the Choucha camp near the Libya-Tunisia border gathered in front of the International Organisation for Migration office yesterday, demanding to know when they will be repatriated.
Although aid workers there said the Bangladeshi migrant workers will receive priority in repatriation, the process suffers further blow with the fresh arrival of thousands of African nationals from troubled Libya overnight and during the day.
Yesterday morning the entire desert-like area, where hundreds of tents have been set up by different organisations, was extremely crowded with the arrival of the Africans in their numbers.
Aid workers said the situation improved a little with more organisations joining the efforts to cope with the situation.
An official of IOM, responsible for transportation of the fleeing workers, said they are overwhelmed by the numbers of African workers in Libya crossing the border.
Although the Bangladeshi workers were the first wave to arrive there, a lack of initiative by the respective government and sluggish reaction by the international bodies, have been delaying their repatriation.
While thousands assembled before the IOM office, thousands more were queuing up for water and food. Several thousand besieged me to tell their sorrows. Many young men looking extremely disoriented from heat, hunger and cold told me how initially in Dhaka they had been subjected to deception and lies after each one of them had paid up to three lakh taka to go to Libya few months ago.
Mohammad Yusuf from Dagonbhuiyan, Feni stood up for several thousand migrant workers, and told me how false promises, and later intimidation in Libya, ruined the lives of the compatriots.
"Each one of us, unlike other workers from other countries of Asia, paid an exorbitant fee of up to three lakh taka to come to Libya," Yusuf said, "In Dhaka, before we paid, the agencies told us we would get three hundred and sixty US dollars per month. And just before we boarded the aeroplane they forced us to sign a paper and sent us to Libya."
He said once the workers were in Libya, notorious middlemen employed by the agencies back in Dhaka, received them and took them to camps.
"Many of us did not even work for months, and eventually those middlemen sold our labour in exchange for food. Now we have been robbed of our last belongings to come here to die," Yusuf said.
As soon as Yusuf finished speaking, several men started crying, without even trying to hide it. Some raised their fists and others shouted slogans against the corrupt system in Bangladesh under which they were treated badly.
"We all want to go home please. Write about us, so that the government takes some initiative for our return home," said Mohammad Ali from Shariatpur, Naria who has been at the camp since March 3.
Mohammad Ejaj, a young man from Adamdighi, Bogra said most people could not get hold of their passports at the time of leaving Libya, as the middlemen -- who were holding the passports -- demanded extra money for returning the documents.
On the way to the Tunisian border, the group of people he travelled with were robbed of everything after armed men stripped them on the road and searched their bodies.
"I don't know how I will go back home and start a new life, after what I have gone through in Libya," Ejaj said.
The stranded workers also corroborated yesterday's report on abduction of Bangladeshi nurses working in Libya. Ali Amjad from Golapganj, Sylhet came to the camp from Tripoli in the first week of March.
He said, "The Libyan police and military forced two nurses out of the bus in which forty Bangladeshis including myself were travelling, and they took them away."
Md Tarek Siddik from Jatrabari was looking for some water on the northern side of the huge camp now accommodating around 17,000 displaced workers.
"I spent months in detention in Libya, and last week they let me go. Now they are telling me I will be repatriated soon. I have no money, no clothing, nothing," said Tarek, about 25 years of age, with tears rolling down his cheeks.
IOM Spokesperson Omari Jumbe had some good news for the Bangladeshi migrant workers. He said they sent 2,700 Bangladeshis from Choucha camp on nine flights to Dhaka yesterday.
"We had a good day today and hopefully tomorrow will be better," Jumbe said adding, "Last night three hundred and eleven Bangladeshis crossed the border, but if the pace of Bangladeshi repatriation continues this way the Africans are set to outnumber them soon."
Jumbe also said there is an international effort to send the Bangladeshi workers home on a priority basis.
The African nationals arriving at the Ras Jdir crossing reported that they were also subjected to torture and theft on their way to the Tunisian border.

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