Refugees suffer during Libya protests

As the protests against Colonel Moamer Kadhafi continued in Libya on Friday, Eritrean refugees and immigrants in the country said that they feared for their safety. Groups of Eritreans in Tripoli and Benghazi told RFI about violent attacks against them and describe the inadequate response to their plight, as other foreign citizens are repatriated.

Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

In Benghazi, 25 Eritrean engineers have been hiding in a hole underground after their workplace was attacked by looters five days ago.

“They had metal rods, knives, and guns - it was like a war,” Ashenafi Fehseha, an engineer with the Rabesh Tadima company there, told RFI in an exclusive interview.

“In the field where we are hiding they are shooting at us left and right - all over. We have three seriously injured people here. When these three fell, they were covered in blood and the looters thought they were dead,” he said.

The wounded have not received any medical attention because other members of the group are too afraid to go out. “They are dying,” said Fehseha. Two Eritrean engineers went out earlier to get help but were shot dead in the street, he added.

“We have no water. We are eating grass to stay alive,” he said.

Fehseha and the other engineers are political refugees, part of the 8,000 currently registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency. Some 3,000 other applications for refugee status are pending.

Anne, who works with an organisation helping refugees and immigrants in Tripoli, said that sub-Saharan Africans are scared to venture outside to get supplies because they are afraid of being attacked.

“The situation is very serious here. The refugees and immigrants cannot leave their homes for food. No help is arriving for them,” she said, on condition of anonymity.

“All the European and other countries are assisting their citizens, but the immigrants […] the sub-Saharan Africans, Ethiopians, Eritreans are all left without help,’ she said.

Reports from Libya indicate that security forces hired by the Libyan government are sub-Saharan African mercenaries. This has made refugees twice as wary to go out and get food and water.

“We can’t go out, because the government in Libya has brought black people to fight with their citizens,” Kigat Mahre, an Eritrean living in Tripoli, told RFI.

“Before, we used to go to work. When the situation started, we had to stop our work immediately,” Mahre said. She has not been able to go back to her house since.

The Eritreans RFI spoke to in Libya said they had difficulty getting in touch with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Our efforts at the moment are to maintain some lines of communication with the people and then assist them as soon a there is a possibility to assist them,” Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesman, told RFI.

In addition to the current crisis on the ground, Libya has not been cooperative with agencies aiding refugees in the past, said Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London-based aid group.

Libya is “a country that hasn’t signed the UN refugee conventions, where they suffer mistreatment, where the UNHCR office is being opposed in what it does and where many of them [refugees] are in prison,” said Gondwe. Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki maintains a good relationship Kadhafi, making the situation for Eritreans in Libya even more precarious.

After contacting the UNHCR in Geneva, the agency took the details of the Eritreans in Libya and has been trying to get into contact with these refugees to assess their situation.

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