The ongoing discussion about sub-Saharan Africans in Libya often lacks precise numbers, terms, and categories. Libyans are by definition Africans, as are other North Africans who live in Libya. But bloggers and journalists have been talking about sub-Saharan Africans in Libya in different ways than they’ve been talking about North African populations there. The reason for making the distinction is that the experiences of some groups seem to in fact be distinct, and those particularities have political implications. It is good to make these distinctions, but we need to make them very carefully.
Put more concretely, who are the foreign workers in Libya? What are the experiences of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa? Migrants? Students? Refugees? The fuzziness of terms and categories on the one hand, and the scattered numerical data on the other, make talking about these issues difficult, and in some cases have helped set up distorted narratives about ruthless “African” mercenaries, “racist” Libyans, or “African” migrants. This post doesn’t tackle the terminology problem, but rather tries to help clarify the situation of sub-Saharan Africans in Libya by compiling some of the numbers floating around in the reporting. Examining the numbers will help identify trends and highlight differences.
Here are some of the key figures I’ve seen, arranged from largest to smallest. Some sources on this list are more reliable than others.
This list offers a basic (though still speculative and incomplete) look at the sub-Saharan African population in Libya. Even though many of the numbers are estimates (some perhaps wildly off the mark), the size and diversity of the sub-Saharan African community in Libya is clear: it includes people from many different nations and people who came for various reasons (work, study, and asylum, seemingly in that order according to the numbers). So writers, including me, need to talk about the “African” experience in Libya with great care – and it seems better to talk about experiences, plural.
As for numbers of mercenaries, both the BBC and AFP cite sources claiming the number of Tuareg mercenaries in Libya is in the hundreds. I have not yet seen a definitive estimate of the total number of mercenaries in the country.