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The World

March 14, 2011

Migrant workers fleeing Libya vow not to return

SHOUSHA CAMP, Tunisia — Thousands of African and Asian migrant workers who fled Libya after years of toil are going home with empty pockets and many vow never to return.

Huddling in a sand-swept Tunisian transit camp near the border with Libya, laborers said they were often cheated by their Libyan bosses even before they were stripped of their remaining cash on their way out of the country.

Those at Shousha Camp are among hundreds of thousands of foreign workers believed to have left Libya since the start of the uprising against Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi a month ago.

Their chaotic exodus highlights oil-rich Libya's often problematic role as a regional magnet for migrant workers. In the past, analysts say, Gadhafi often invited or expelled migrants in line with his political needs.

Data is sketchy, but according to one estimate, as many as 2.5 million foreigners — on par with Libya's own domestic labor force — worked in the North African nation before the current crisis. In recent years, as Libya emerged from crippling international sanctions, the foreigners filled jobs Libyans didn't want or weren't trained for, including in construction, oil and health services.

For the most vulnerable Asian and African migrant workers — those who didn't have the backing of their government or a foreign company or were in Libya illegally — the hasty departure marks the close of a bitter chapter in their lives.

"I am going home with nothing," said John Adjei, a 33-year-old construction worker from Ghana who had just arrived at the transit camp, waiting to be assigned a tent. In eight years in Libya, he said he was robbed twice, most recently en route to the Tunisian border. As an illegal immigrant, he had no recourse, including against bosses who refused to pay him.

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