By Maha Salah
Egyptian laborers have been facing kidnapping and murder just to be able to make a living in Libya.
While some Egyptians decided to stay, others have returned to Egypt. And some have even returned home only to go back to Libya again.
On the morning of Feb. 15, 2015, Milad, a man in his seventies with a typical Upper Egyptian appearance [dark-skinned, like most Upper Egyptians] joined the crowds heading from the Minya Governorate to the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassiya District in Cairo.
The crowds were desperately pleading for the return of their relatives from Libya, who had been working there and were kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS). IS had published a report in its online magazine Dabiq, threatening to kill the abductees.
On that same evening, Milad returned to his home in Upper Egypt, only to cry out as he watched his son, Gerges, slaughtered in a video titled “a blood-signed message to the Nation of the Cross.”
Gerges was executed along with 21 other Egyptian laborers who had been kidnaped from their homes in the city of Sirte.
On Feb. 23, 2015, Ahmad Adel, a 25-year-old Egyptian worker, wiped his forehead as he entered the Salloum border crossing, separating the Egyptian city of Salloum from city of Musaid in Libya.
Adel was deported from Libya following the Egyptian Army’s air strikes on IS strongholds in Libyan territories carried out in retaliation for the slaughter of Egyptians.
“I used to work as a construction labourer in the al-Bayda area, far from war and danger, but the Libyan police forced us to leave, fearing that we would be kidnapped like others,” Adel said.
The kidnapping and slaughter of the 21 Egyptian Copts was the first and would not be the last episode in the plight of Egyptian laborers in Libya.
Since the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime in 2011, Libya has become a major battleground, where many people carry a weapon, and where the balance of power could be tipped overnight.
Under these conditions, Egyptian laborers in Libya, who, according to the estimates of the Egyptian Ministry of Labor, numbered about 2 million before the outbreak of the Libyan revolution, have become victims of kidnapping, murder, exploitation and ill-treatment.
The kidnappings began in January 2014, when five employees of the Egyptian Embassy in Libya were abducted after Egyptian forces arrested Libyan citizen Shaaban Hadiah.
In February of that year, seven Egyptian laborers were kidnapped in Benghazi and shot dead. An Egyptian physician and his wife were killed in Sirte in late 2014. Their daughter was then kidnapped and her body found a few days later.
Events like these prompted some 800,000 Egyptians to return to Egypt, according to Egyptian Foreign Ministry data.
Adel was among 4,000 other Egyptians labourers who had returned home only to decide to come back to Libya. “I could not find a good job to be able to get married, so I decided to go back,” Adel said.
“In Egypt a construction labourer makes less than 100 Egyptian pounds if he lands a job at all, and if he can keep that job for the next day. Labourers don’t make more than 500 pounds a month in Egypt, while in Libya they can make up to 3,000 pounds,” he added.
“I am humiliated every day to get this money,” Adel said, complaining about his employer who mistreated him and other Egyptian colleagues, insulting them all the time, and withholding salaries from those who dared to speak up.
If someone complained to the police, the employer would send armed people to beat them, while he would still be free to walk the streets with impunity.
Between the hell of emigration and alienation, and the fires of unemployment in his homeland, Adel found himself at a crossroads. He dreamt of returning. His parents ached for him, yet they did not press him to come back. “You have to endure to make money if you want to have a family and a home,” they said.
Just like Adel, 23-year-old Haitham decided to return to Libya. In late 2015, he and 20 other Egyptian laborers were abducted in the Libyan town of Zillah at the hands of an armed group and detained for 20 days before the Egyptian authorities, in cooperation with the Libyan government, managed to return them to Egypt. Two months later, Haitham found himself back in Libya again.
“I don’t like living abroad, but it is my fate,” Haitham said, explaining that he could not find any other choice other than to return, either legally or illegally, so that he could support his family after his father’s death.
He later returned to Zillah, the very same town where he was kidnapped. Every corner there reminded him of his abduction. “I was trapped with 20 other workers, most of them are relatives, in an underground tunnel for 20 days.
We barely ate anything. Every time the door opened, we were terrified. We thought it was the end. They would slaughter or shoot us dead like they have done with those before us,” Haitham said.
Nothing changed for Haitham when he came back. He still had to bear the same insults from his employers, fearing that any dispute or small row with Libyan citizens might cause him to be kidnapped again, or even murdered.
After recurring kidnappings and killings, the Egyptian government decided to ban its nationals from traveling to Libya and opened the Salloum border crossing to returnees only. However, this decision simply opened the door for illegal immigration. Many Egyptians lost their way trekking through the desert and later died of thirst.
In July 2015, the Libyan Red Crescent found the bodies of 48 illegal immigrants in the desert between the cities of Ajdabiya and Tobruk.
The Red Crescent issued a statement saying that the “victims were illegally traveling to Libya to work there. They got lost in the desert in search of water.”
In the wake of the incident, the head of the General Directorate of Inspection and Follow-up in Tobruk, Saleh Mansur Suleiman, published a video showing that some of the bodies were rotten, which suggested that these people died a few days before they were found. Their belongings suggested that most of them came from Upper Egypt governorates, especially from Minya and Asyut.
Two years later, the same scenario played out again. The Libyan Red Crescent found the bodies of 19 Egyptian citizens who had entered Libya on foot and died of extreme thirst after they lost their way in the desert.
This was in addition to another 160 Egyptian laborers who were killed during the revolution against Gadhafi, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Labour.
Yet, Egyptian laborers continued to line up in front of the doors of the Libyan Embassy in the Zamalek district of Cairo hoping to obtain a visa to the neighbouring country.
The demand prompted the embassy to issue a short statement that read, “It has been decided to stop issuing visas of all kinds to Libya to our Egyptian brothers until further notice.”
The Arab Tribal Union secretaries launched an awareness campaign across the Egyptian governorates aimed at warning young Egyptians of the perils of travelling to Libya.
“Travelling to Libya continues to pose a threat to the lives of young Egyptians, especially since they are now resorting to illegal ways of travelling, risking their lives either by being kidnapped or losing their way.
They are also being deprived of their rights and are viewed as guilty before the state and the law,” Gamal al-Gazouri, the Union secretary of the Minya Governorate said.
Gazouri stressed that the Union is making every effort to try to solve the predicaments of Egyptian labourers in Libya, settle any differences they had with their employers, and facilitate their return home.
Meanwhile, MP for the Matrouh Governorate, Mahdi al-Umda condemned the decision to ban the travel of Egyptians to Libya through the crossing.
Umda put forward a motion in the Egyptian parliament that highlighted the adverse results of the ongoing travel ban, which were reflected in the increase in illegal immigration and the higher death toll in the Libyan desert.
“There are more than 25,000 official records of illegal crossings into Libya. Some people were arrested, some died, and others were lost,” Umda said vehemently.
Umda believes that the best solution to prevent these unfortunate events is to amend the ministerial decisions prohibiting the travel of the Egyptians to Libya, which only allowed Egyptian cargo trucks to travel into Libyan territories up to the border town of Musaid.
Only Egyptians from the Matrouh Governorate were allowed to enter Libya on foot through the Salloum border crossing on the Egyptian side to the Musaid crossing in Libya, strictly for intra-regional trade purposes.
Egyptians married to Libyans, or Libyans married to Egyptians, and their children were also allowed to travel to Libya. All this was done in coordination with the security authorities so as to obtain the necessary approvals.
Egypt’s Minister of Labour, Mohamed Saafan, met with Libyan Minister of Labour Mehdi Amin, who stressed Libya’s need for Egyptian labour should the security situation stabilize. Yet, nothing has changed recently.
“Libya is in dire need of skilled Egyptian labourers in all domains to work in Libya during its reconstruction process. Much destruction and instability has occurred over the past years, particularly in Sirte and Benghazi,” Amin said in a statement issued April 2018 by the Egyptian Ministry of Labour.
Egypt’s Immigration Minister Nabila Karam said during an initiative she launched last year, that the travel ban on Egyptian labourers to Libya was still in place, given the government’s keenness on the safety of Egyptians in light of the unstable situation there.
Hamada responded to the calls of the Egyptian government and did not try to go back to Libya since he returned in 2015. “After what I saw there, I cannot go back,” he said.
He used to work in the city of Sirte and witnessed several kidnappings, including the abduction of his cousins. He returned immediately as soon as he had the chance and never set foot in Libya again.
Hamada, who is thirty something, had spent six months looking for a job in Egypt until he landed a job as a taxi driver for 2,500 pounds per month.
“I earn a pittance, which is not enough to meet the needs of my household. But I am fine like that and will not go back to Libya again. Being next to my family makes the hardships easier to endure. I am safe here,” Hamad said.
He does not deny that the idea of leaving again crosses his mind, especially when things go sideways. One time, he was going through a financial crisis and asked a relative to help him travel illegally to Libya. But his family and children talked him out of it.
While some Egyptians choose to remain safely at home, abject poverty has driven many others to risk their lives for a decent livelihood.