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How Qaddafi helped fuel fury toward Africans in Libya

During the past few weeks of uprising in Libya, hundreds of African migrant workers have been detained, beaten, or harassed by Libyans due to reports that African mercenaries are fighting for Muammar Qaddafi.

By Clair MacDougallContributor / March 6, 2011

People, who used to work in Libya and fled the unrest in the country, carry their belongings as they arrive in a refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libyan border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, Sunday, March 6. The camp, which houses about 5,000 people, was built after shelters at the border couldn't handle the large numbers coming through.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

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Accra, Ghana

As Libya erupts into civil war, migrant laborers from sub-Saharan Africa are coming under increasing threat of mob violence due to reports that African mercenaries are helping Muammar Qaddafi brutally quash a nation-wide uprising against his 41-year rule.

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Many of the estimated 2.5 million migrant workers in Libya before the uprising are from sub-Saharan Africa, and unlike workers from the West – or from countries such as Turkey, China, and South Korea – Africans have had a hard time making it out of the country.

Few have the institutional support of their countries, many lack the money needed for the expensive journey home, and thousands remain too scared to try to make their way out of the country for fear of being beaten or killed by rebel mobs flush with animosity for anyone with dark skin and African features.

Many experts – and African migrant workers themselves – say the animosity stems from anti-African racism found throughout the Arab world. But some say the anger has been made much worse by Mr. Qaddafi's moves to buy the loyalty of black Libyans from the south of the country as well as his decades-long efforts to build Africa-wide patronage networks at great cost to the country's Arab majority.

“I think that there are levels of racism within Libyan society that are quite problematic. But racism is not just against other Africans, meaning non-Libyan Africans, but also within Libya itself," says Na'eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Qaddafi’s bodyguards, many of those people are actually from the south of Libya, partly because Qaddafi trusts them more than he would trust people from the north for various tribal and other reasons."

Issaka Souare, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, also thinks that the resentment toward dark-skinned Africans is connected to Qaddafi’s tribal allegiances and his perceived favoritism of Libya's south as well as his “Pan-Africanism.”

Mr. Souare says there may be among Libya's anti-Qaddafi rebels in the long-neglected, now "liberated" east of the country an unwillingness to accept that other Libyans could support Qaddafi.

“There seems to be this idea that if people are supporting Qaddafi, it must be mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, because it could not be the work of Libyans," says Mr. Souare. "It must be these savage Africans.”

Tales of beatings and threats

The West African nation of Ghana has repatriated more than 500 of its estimated 10,000 workers in Libya. Many of the workers who moved to cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi in search of a better life have returned with stories of looting, threats, and beatings.

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