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Libya's 'New Racism'

On September 5, 2011

Black African migrants in Libya face an increasingly perilous situation.

As we have blogged before, black African migrants have been the target of attacks by anti-Gaddafi forces on suspicion of being mercenaries for the regime since the conflict in Libya began. Recent reports suggest that the danger for migrants from Subsaharan African countries has intensified since the Gaddafi regime lost control of Tripoli, with rebels turning their wrath against those suspected of being mercenaries. Dozens of migrants are being held in a prison in the Suq al Jouma neighbourhood of Tripoli, according to the New York Times and Time magazine.

Libya had previously been very welcoming to migrants from elsewhere in Africa,  but the line between regime soldier and dark-skinned southerner or migrant worker has become blurred in the midst of the conflict, writes Time's Abigail Hauslohner in Tripoli.

Hauslohner visits a camp outside Tripoli and examines the background in depth:

The displaced mostly hail from countries across West Africa, like Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Many have lived in Libya for years — even decades — and carry the legal papers to prove it. Their presence is rooted in Gaddafi's legacy of fostering close relationships with fellow African regimes and recruiting loyalists from among their citizens. But for a man who often sought to portray himself as a leader of the continent, Gaddafi may have done more to divide his country's future than to encourage tolerance and respect.

It's popular knowledge among the predominantly Arab and Berber rebel ranks here that Gaddafi funded questionable African warlords and armies, even as his own population struggled. And at his home in Tripoli's Bab al-Aziziyah compound, rebels hold up old pictures of Gaddafi posing with African children dressed in fatigues as further evidence of their former ruler's betrayal.

His alleged mercenaries — particularly the men who populated the fearsome Khamis Brigade, which was used to assault the rebels over the course of their six-month revolt — often came from the southern town of Sabha or the neighboring countries of Mali, Niger and Chad. The foreigners were alleged to receive benefits and even fast-track residency in exchange for their services as loyalists and fighters — a practice, whether real or exaggerated, that has fueled deep tribal, ethnic and geographic mistrust.

Anti-Gaddafi forces are currently holding Subsaharan Africans captive in a building in central Tripoli:

More than 120 other suspects — most of them foreign Africans — are being held at a school in central Tripoli, in the absence of a functioning government or justice system. There are rumors of other ad hoc prisons. And a guard, Jamal Mohamed, is sure the captives are snipers. "Polisario," he adds, referring to a resistance movement in Western Sahara, from which Gaddafi allegedly recruited. Some of the captives have been punched in the eyes or nurse bandaged wounds sustained during fighting. Many were apprehended during battles in Gaddafi-stronghold neighborhoods. At least two admit to being members of the regime's forces.

But many others say they were captured by accident or targeted out of racism or xenophobia. Abou Bakr from Niger says he had merely gone outside to look for water but lived in the wrong neighborhood, one where rebels happened to be searching for loyalists.

Tripoli is a racially diverse city, with skin colors ranging from pale to very dark — largely because Gaddafi encouraged such integration. And the Libyan rebels display the same diversity among their ranks. But a latent racism festers, along with the hazy rules that only locals seem to understand that distinguish between "good" black people from "bad." The logic follows the lines of Gaddafi's uneven favors, which even in Tripoli often served personal ambitions more than the public good (full story here)

According to this report in the New York Times, suspicion of black Africans is now endemic:

Many Tripoli residents — including some local rebel leaders — now often use the Arabic word for "mercenaries" or "foreign fighters" as a catchall term to refer to any member of the city’s large underclass of African migrant workers - link