In pursuit of bread: Why Egyptian workers are willing to risk their lives in Libya

After a graphic video showing 21 Coptic Egyptians beheaded by Islamic State forces was released on Sunday, some activists are holding their government accountable for the grim conditions faced by Egyptian migrant laborers.

Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, argued the government was responsible for the murders in a post published on his personal Facebook page on Monday.

Thabet’s main criticism revolves around the government’s lack of transparency in how it deals with the many cases of Egyptian workers kidnapped and killed in Libya.The official response to such violent incidents is often delayed, forcing the victims’ families to seek alternative channels to raise attention about the plight of their loved ones, Thabet claimed.

But even more than the state’s failure to rescue the 21 hostages, activists are harshly criticizing the decision to launch airstrikes on purported Islamic State holdouts in Libya without a clear plan to evacuate Egyptians living there. Critics fear these Egyptians will now become even more of a target for militias seeking retribution.

More generally, Thabet took the government to task for failing to address and solve the issues that lead these workers to travel to such a hostile country in the first place.

In Egypt, where unofficial unemployment and poverty rates have been on the rise, the question of why workers would be willing to put their lives in danger by migrating to war zones is often met with frustration.

Hanan is married to Saber al-Ghitany, an Egyptian laborer from Sohag who is currently trapped in Libya. She says she’s praying for her husband’s safe return, but has no idea when and how that could happen.

When asked why her husband traveled to Libya despite the government’s repeated warnings against going to the strife-ridden country, Hanan laughs at the question’s naivety. 

“He has kids who are about to be married. He needed money to help them out, and he decided to spare them the pain of traveling themselves by chasing after any available jobs in Libya,” she explains.

An estimated 200,000 Egyptian workers currently reside in Libya — a steep decline from the 2 million that reportedly used to work there before the 2011 uprising there, that led to the end of the incumbent Muammar al-Qadhafi rule. The expats who stayed have found themselves caught in the crossfire between Libya’s polarized militant factions, with little recourse to aid from the Egyptian government.

After Monday’s air raid on Libya, Mohamed Naeem, a writer and analyst, wrote a post expanding on the poor living conditions of Egyptian workers in Libya and how these conditions have become a site of weakness in IS’ version of the war with Egypt .

Thousands of Egyptians have risked immigrating to Libya for work, most of them from Upper Egypt, where the dire economic situation “makes enduring the risks of working in Libya acceptable,” Naeem asserted.

Despite the ongoing violence, Libya remains a place where “they can make good money in a short period of time,” he claimed, which renders them a vulnerable target for Libyan factions.

“The Islamist militias and the Islamic State recognize this point of weakness. Calculating regional balances, they’re forcing the Egyptian side to kneel by using these hostages, who are only there to earn a living, by producing images such as Sunday’s beheading video,” he added.

But Egypt does not have the means to evacuate these workers, nor does it have the money or infrastructure to wage an open war against the IS in Libya, Naeem said.

“This bargain cannot continue,” he argued. “The solution lies in making strong attacks against the resources these militias rely on. Recent analysis showed that these groups … sell smuggled oil, and they bring in foreign workers to aid their mission. They are rentiers, so we have to attack and threaten their sources of income.”

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has intermittently tried to organize airlifts to evacuate Egyptian expats under threat, but has only reached a small percentage of that population. In July 2014, more than 15,000 Egyptians reportedly attempted to flee ongoing violence in Tripoli by storming the border with Tunisia. Despite ministry statements that Egypt would do everything it could to aid the migrants, the workers and their families issued several statements pleading for help.

At least 15 Egyptians were killed at the border crossing that summer. Media reports gave conflicting accounts of the circumstances around their deaths.

Responding to the crisis, in August the ministry organized flights out of the southern Tunisian city of Djerba. The flights brought a reported 1,170 Egyptians safely back home, but thousands more were left stranded at the border.

The recent violence is unprecedented, but this immigration pattern is nothing new. Egyptians have sought better fortunes in Libya for at least half a century, researcher Sara Hamood explained in the research paper, “African transit migration through Libya to Europe: The human cost,” published by the American University in Cairo in 2006.

“For over four decades, [Libya] has served as a destination for migrants seeking employment, usually for a limited period of time before returning home. In many cases, migrants would make repeated visits of varying duration to Libya to boost their annual income while maintaining their home in their country of origin,” she said.

Historically, Egyptians were the single largest nationality present in Libya, working predominantly in agriculture and education.

Egyptians don’t only flee to Libya for work. The country is also one of the main exit points for North African migrants attempting to flee to Europe, especially to Italy.

“Traveling by boat from Libya has now become one of the most important and hotly contested routes for entry into Europe by sea, with some 80,000 migrants estimated to reach Italy’s southern islands and Malta each year from Libya and Tunisia,” Hamood added.

Iraq had previously been the hub for Egyptian labor from all sectors. Some studies estimate that around 3 million Egyptian professionals worked in Iraq during the 1980s. However, the Gulf War in 1991, followed by the US economic embargo, drove most of those workers back to Egypt. The 2003 American invasion and subsequent widespread violence forced the remaining Egyptians to flee, and seek out other places to work.

The risk of detention, torture, inhumane treatment and deportation also existed in Libya during overthrown Qadhafi’s rule, but these dangers escalated severely after 2011. Sectarian violence in particular has significantly increased in the past two years, with dozens of Coptic Christians abducted and murdered by Islamist militias. Hundreds of Egyptian migrants have also been detained by Libyan authorities since 2011, many of them fishermen who crossed regional waters.

Just this weekend, 21 Egyptian fisherman disappeared in Libya, leading their families and rights groups to raise a red flag. Only on Monday did the Libyan authorities announce that the fishermen were detained by the Libyan authorities, and had not been kidnapped by militants as some media outlets had reported. According to a Libyan official, the fishermen will be released soon in coordination with the Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli.

But as Egypt-Libya relations grow more complex with the Egyptian military entering into the fray, the fate of the fishermen and the thousands of other Egyptian workers still trapped behind the borders only grows more uncertain.

Nadia Ahmed 

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