Stay home or return to Libya? Egyptian workers face grim choice

Ayat Al Tawy , Sunday 30 Nov 2014

Conditions at home are continuing to drive Egyptians abroad, even to strife-torn Libya

Egyptian workers prepare to leave Libya in al-Marj city, February 23, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

For many Egyptian migrant workers, chaotic Libya is a release from the relentless economic hardship and idleness of home, despite an apparent breakdown of law and order in the North African country. 

"There is no money or work in Egypt. I was comfortable [in Libya]; I used to live much better," says Mostafa, a marble worker, who returned home to Egypt last June for what was meant to be a short holiday.

The 31-year-old is among thousands of Egyptian migrant workers who until recently held down jobs in the oil-producing country and still seek a return to protect their livelihoods.

Despite growing anarchy since the 2011 toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which saw him ambushed by Islamist-leaning militiamen and robbed at his home and workshop, Mostafa bitterly admits he remains undeterred.

"Here [in Egypt] you die slowly every day, but there at least you might die once and be relieved," he laments, giving only his first name.

Libya, where immigrants made up over 12 percent of the total population until 2013, has long been a major destination for Egyptians due to its geographical proximity and open border measures, which until April 2011 allowed Egyptians to enter and reside there without a visa.

But after over three years of ever-simmering political strife, the country was not anticipated to remain a goal for migrants.

Many of the 170,000+ returning Egyptians still aim to return to Libya either to resume their businesses or retrieve equipment and belongings they left behind.

Egyptian men an who were working in Libya carry their belongings after they fled the country at the Tunisia-Libyan border, near the town of Ben Guerdane,Tunisia, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. (Photo: AP)

Travel constraints

However, it is not disarray plaguing the country that is stopping many from returning, but rather tighter entry regulations that some claim are politically motivated.

Libyan airport passport control authorities recently scrapped ink-stamped visas after adopting electronic (sticker) ones, with officials deeming the old travel document "illegitimate."

Several Egyptians are barred every week from entering the country at Borg Al-Arab airport -- the only current gateway onto Libyan soil -- because of their out-of-date papers.

Under Libyan law, only expatriates sponsored by local employers are eligible for work visas that must be registered with the country's passport authority. This means thousands of Egyptians who were self-employed workers cannot legally re-enter Libya.

Swallowed by a large crowd outside the Libyan airline office in downtown Cairo, a middle-aged man nimbly thrusts his way through to reach the door to buy a ticket, only to be told about his non-compliant visa.

In arrears with substantial debts, Gamal Ahmed says he borrowed the equivalent of a million Egyptian pounds from friends and family to plough money into his import-export business which he started in Libya after the uprising.

After contacting his sponsor, his visa -- which he had long used to freely enter and exit the country -- turned out to be unregistered.

But he has not abandoned hope of returning.

"I'm ready to go there at any price and in any possible way."

"I'll either get my money back, die in Libya or end in jail in Egypt because of my debts," he laments.

Most of the stamped visas, usually acquired through brokers and travel agencies, are false and not registered at the passport authority in Libya, a local diplomat says.

"The political ferment in recent years worked against identifying counterfeit passports," Libyan consul in Egypt, Abdel Razik Al-Akhdar, tells Ahram Online, saying the new policies are meant to ensure the law is enforced.

While Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are among the Middle East's most aspired destinations for migrant workers, Libya receives preference due to the low cost of travel documents.

In a September report, the International Organisation for Migration estimated that up to one million Egyptians remain in Libya -- predominantly from rural areas and Lower Egypt -- meaning almost 16 percent of a total population of 6.2 million. Egypt's Manpower and Migration Ministry, however, puts the number at a tenth of that figure.


Hundreds of Egyptians recently flew to Tripoli, only to discover that their papers were invalid.

In a one-off incident, 600 were stopped in late October at Mitiga airport, east of the capital, 400 of whom were denied entry, according to the Libyan consul.

Metwally Ramadan was one of those. He says he was insulted by Libyan security forces and detained for three days at the airport.

"We were not allowed food, water or access to toilets," Ramadan remembers, claiming that other nationalities were not affected.

Many Egyptians say they have been increasingly targetted by an armed faction allied to the city of Misrata, which controls Tripoli and parts of western Libya.

They say the Fajr Libya alliance is incensed by Egypt's alleged backing for forces led by a former general who declared war on Islamist-leaning militias, as well as President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's public support for the internationally recognised government which they are battling.

"They told us at the airport -- specifically those who appeared to have served in the army -- that El-Sisi must have sent you and you'll deserve what will be done to you."

"Militiamen think we are striking them, so they want to strike a blow to the Egyptian workforce," Ramadan says, alluding to allegations that Egypt and the UAE bombed Libya's Islamist militia fighters in August, something Cairo has repeatedly denied.

The consul, nevertheless, stresses the airport staff belong to the country's passport department and espouse no political affiliation.

Dismissing claims the new restrictions are politically motivated, the senior diplomat says hundreds of Egyptians carrying valid visas were allowed to enter Libya over the past weeks.

He does not deny though that injustices could have taken place.

Despite the common afflictions, some still don't think Libya is unsafe, and brush aside fears of lingering militia violence.

Residing near a beach Tripoli, where he regularly goes for a stroll, Yasser, 34, says the media is blowing developments way out of proportion. He claims locals are not in peril as residential areas are never targetted.

He, and many other migrant workers, say highly paid jobs and the low cost of living makes Libya more financially rewarding than their native soil.

"The country is going on: restaurants, supermarkets and everything is working normally," Yasser says about a place where he has worked for over a decade and is planning to return to as soon as his papers are ready.

"Even Tripoli airport which they [the militants] pounded is on the outskirts of town away from residents."

International rights watchdogs, nonetheless, appear to take issue.

Recent reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said armed factions had committed what could amount to war crimes during assaults on civilians in the capital, the northern port city of Benghazi and western areas. 

An Egyptian waits in a tent at the UNHCR refugee camp of Djerba airport before taking a plane home March 6, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

Sneaking in

Despite the hindrances, migrants still find ways, mostly hazardous, to infiltrate the embattled country.

South of Salloum, a city in northwestern Egypt near the frontier with Libya, brokers smuggle migrants through mountain passes where they trek for some 25 kilometers, passing minefields, until they reach the Libya city of Mosaid.

Travellers then wait long hours in mountain caves until they are handed to other dual-nationality brokers who pick them up in private Libyan vehicles. The gruelling journey costs at least LE4,000 and can have as many as 60 migrants, says a broker who requested not to be named.

"When we were travelling last year, a mine blew up and one of our comrades lost his leg, but we had to leave him and progress," Mostafa, the marble worker, recalls.

Authorities arrest dozens every week near the border.

But despite the risks, many still take this journey as a final resort.

Others think of travelling, semi-legally, through the border crossing. They say this can be done by posing as delivery drivers after authorities of both states banned earlier this year the entry of passengers through the Egypt-Libya frontier on security grounds. The plan goes as follows: acquire a driving license then have the profession changed in the passport to "driver."

But now, amid all the suffering, moves by the government to ease the crisis are much needed.

The Cairo authorities say steps have been taken towards tackling the issue of expatriates working in and those returning from Libya.

The Egyptian government began, in liaison with Libyan authorities, a campaign aimed to help Egyptian returnees and provide compensation and alternative work opportunities for them.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration, which sponsors the campaign, said some 65,000 applications have so far been submitted.

But he says compensation will be demanded from the Libyan authorities and provided to those affected only when the situation in the country is perceived as "politically stable."

But until this happens many will not be able to bear the dreadful adversity.

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