It’s easy to spot Saani Bubakar in Tripoli’s old town: Always dressed in the distinctive orange jumpsuit of the city’s waste collectors, he pushes his cart through the narrow streets on a routine that has been his for the last three years.
“I come from a very poor village in Niger where there is not even running water,” explained the 23-year-old during a break. “Our neighbors told us that one of their sons was working in Tripoli, so I decided to take the trip, too.”
Of the 250 Libyan dinars [or approximately $190] Bubakar is paid each month, he manages to send more than half to his family back home. Accommodation, he added, is free.
“We are 50 in an apartment nearby,” he said, adding that he will be back in Niger “soon.” It is not the poor working conditions but the increasing instability in the country that makes him want to go back home.
Thousands of migrants remain detained in Libyan detention centers, where they face torture that includes “severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Three years after Libya’s former ruler Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed, Libya remains in a state of political turmoil that has pushed the country to the brink of civil war. There are two governments and two separate parliaments: One based in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk, more than 600 miles east of the capital.
The latter, set up after elections in June when only 10 percent of the census population took part, has international recognition.
Several militias are grouped into two paramilitary alliances: Fajr (Arabic for “Dawn”), led by the Misrata brigades controlling Tripoli, and Karama (“Dignity”), commanded by Khalifa Haftar, a Tobruk-based former army general.
The population and foreign workers feel caught in the crossfire. “I’m always afraid of working at night because the fighting in the city usually starts as soon as the sun hides,” said Odar Yahub, one of Bubakar’s roommates.
At 22, Yahub said that he will not go back to Niger until he has earned enough to get married, but that will probably take longer than expected:
“We haven’t been paid for the last four months, and no one has given us any explanation,” the young worker said, as he emptied his bucket in the garbage truck.
European dreams swept aside
While most of the sweepers are of sub-Saharan origin, there are also many who arrived from Bangladesh. Aaqib, who preferred not to disclose his full name, has already spent four years cleaning the streets of the Souk al Juma neighborhood, east of the capital. He said he supports his family in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, by sending home almost all the 450 Libyan dinars (approximately $330) from his salary, which he has not received for the last four months either.
“Of course I’ve dreamed of going to Europe but I know many have died at sea,” explained Aaqib, 28. “I’d only travel by plane, and with a visa stamped on my passport.”
For the time being, his passport is in the hands of his contractor. All the waste collectors interviewed by Inter Press Service (IPS) said their documents had been confiscated.
From his office in east Tripoli, Mohamed Bilkhaire, who became minister of employment in the Tripoli Executive two months ago, said that he was not surprised that even though the country experiences a 35 percent unemployment rate, according to his sources, all the garbage collectors are foreigners.
“Arabs do not sweep due to sociocultural factors, neither here nor in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq. … We need foreigners to do the job,” said Bilkhaire.
Asked about the garbage collectors’ salaries, he told IPS that they are paid Libya’s minimum income of 450 Libyan dinars, and that any smaller amount is due to “illegal subcontracting, which should be prosecuted.”
Bilkhaire also admitted that passports were confiscated “temporarily” because most of the foreign workers “want to cross to Europe.”
According to data gathered and released by FRONTEX, the European Union’s border agency, among the more than 42,000 immigrants who arrived in Italy during the first four months of 2014, 27,000 came from Libya.
Complete and utter helplessness
A report released in June by HRW stated that thousands of migrants remain detained in Libyan detention centers, where they face torture that includes “severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks.”
“Detainees have described to us how male guards strip-searched women and girls and brutally attacked men and boys,” wrote Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher.
Hanan Salah, HRW researcher for Libya, said that in the case of foreign workers under contract, “with the breakdown of the judicial system in many regions, abusive employers and those who do not comply with whatever contract was agreed upon, can hardly be held accountable in front of the law.”
Shokri Agmar, a lawyer from Tripoli, talks about “complete and utter helplessness.”
“The main problem for foreign workers in Libya is not merely the judicial neglect but rather that they lack a militia of their own to protect themselves.”
Tripoli is precisely one of the districts where large numbers of migrants gather until somebody picks them up for a day of work, generally as construction workers.
Aghedo arrived from Nigeria in December.
For the 25-year-old, holding a shovel with his right hand, Tripoli is just a stopover between an endless odyssey across the Sahara Desert and a dangerous sea journey to Italy.
“There are days when they do not even pay us, but also others when we can make up to 100 dinars,” Aghedo said.
The young migrant didn’t lower his guard when forced to distinguish between two types of pick-up trucks: The ones that offer a job that is not always paid and those driven by the local militia. Choosing the second could cause him to end up in one of the most feared detention centers.
“I know I could find a job as a sweeper but I cannot wait that long to raise the money for a passage in one of the boats bound for Europe,” Aghedo said, without taking his eyes off the road.