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  • on 13.03.2011
  • at 08:00 AM
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Magreb: for migrants, crisis worsens economic situation at home 1

BERLIN – The mass exodus of immigrant workers from Libya is aggravating the social and economic situation in the migrants’ home nations from Sudan and Chad in sub-Saharan Africa, to Bangladesh in Asia according to labour and economic experts.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) puts at more than one million people the number of migrants working in Libya before the rebellion against the regime of Muammar el-Gaddafi broke out one month ago. The migrant workers come from neighbouring countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, and Chad; but also from far-away Asian nations, such as China and Bangladesh.

“The ILO estimates that more than one million migrant people were working legally or illegally in Libya until the beginning of this year,” Dorothea Schmidt, an economist for the organisation who is presently based in Cairo, told IPS.

Schmidt said that most of the migrant workers in Libya are from Tunisia and Egypt. Most of them are now back in their countries of origin. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation of other migrant workers especially from Bangladesh and sub-Saharan African countries has turned into a catastrophe.

Reports by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organisations indicate that tens of thousands of Bangladeshi, Sudanese, and Chadian nationals are fleeing the violent harassment of armed militias most likely loyal to Gaddafi.

The migrant workers are housed in makeshift, open-air camps near the Libyan borders, waiting for transport to return to their countries.

During a press conference in Geneva Tuesday, the UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards confirmed reports that migrant workers have been victims of violence and intimidation in Libya.

“A UNHCR team at the Egypt border interviewed a group of Sudanese who arrived from eastern Libya who said that armed Libyans were going door to door, forcing sub-Saharan Africans to leave. In one instance a 12-year-old Sudanese girl was said to have been raped,” Edwards told the press.

The Sudanese refugees “reported that many people had their documents confiscated or destroyed. We heard similar accounts from a group of Chadians who fled Benghazi, Al Bayda and Brega in the past few days,” Edwards added.

“At both Libyan borders, most of those awaiting evacuation are Bangladeshi single men. There is a critical shortage at present of long-haul flights to Bangladesh, other Asian countries and sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) are using cash contributions to charter flights, and several donor countries have offered long-haul flights. Nevertheless, with an estimated 40-50 flights needed to repatriate all the migrants, further support will be needed to ensure that everyone is transported home, Edwards pointed out.

Schmidt told IPS that these workers’ exodus from Libya is increasing the social and economic upheaval in their countries of origin.

“For Egypt and other countries, the return of the migrant workers from Libya is fatal,” Schmidt explained. “On the one hand, the migrant workers come to increase the number of unemployed youth, already very high. On the other hand, the remittances they were sending back home, and which supported economically their families, are over now.”

The ILO estimates that the total remittances from Libya to Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Bangladesh and other countries amounted to one billion U.S. dollars per year. About half of this money went to Egypt.

Globally, according to World Bank figures, Egyptian nationals working abroad sent 7.6 billion U.S. dollar to their families at home in 2010.

Schmidt warned that without foreign economic aid and an immediately successful national economic policy, Egypt and Tunisia won’t be able to cope with the return of the migrant workers.

In Tunisia, unemployment jumped to 17 percent after the migrant workers returned home from Libya, up from 14 percent,” Schmidt said. Without immediate economic perspectives, Maghreb youth would again leave the country, most likely to Europe, the ILO expert added.

The Maghreb countries cannot cope with the social and economic consequences of the mass exodus from Libya, warned Robert Holzmann, research director at the Labour Mobility Program of the Marseille Centre for Mediterranean Integration. “In the short term, there won’t be a mass exodus,” Holzmann said. “But in the middle term, Europe must prepare for rising immigration from the Maghreb region.”

Holzmann, an Austrian national, recalled that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, workers migrated to Western Europe, regardless of the economic reforms carried out in their countries of origin.

“Something similar is going to happen in the Maghreb countries,” Holzmann said. “Even the most auspicious reform policies won’t be good enough to create enough jobs to cope with mass youth unemployment. Therefore, the European Union should launch now a new immigration management policy,” Holzmann said.

Europe should not be afraid of the new migration. “History shows that immigration can be a positive factor in the development of societies. Despite the bloody causes of mass exodus, migration can be a source of innovation,” said Thomas Straubhaar, director of the Institute for International Economics in Hamburg.

One of the many social and economic puzzles of the Maghreb region is that despite high national youth unemployment, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from sub-Saharan African and Asian countries could find jobs there, especially in the construction sector.

“For the local, relatively well-educated youth in Libya, Tunisia, and other countries in the region, jobs in the construction industry were not attractive,” Schmidt explained. “For Sudanese or Bangladeshi immigrants, these jobs were the only alternative to feed themselves and their families at home.”

By Julio GodoyIps Africa

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  1. […] The return of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to Egypt and Tunisia in particular puts added pressure on all segments of the economy in these areas. […]

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