Escalating violence forces refugee nomads to flee Libya

 The political crisis unfolding in Libya has forced millions of foreigners to flee the country. Most foreigners in Libya jump on the first flight out, but for Tuaregs, a nomadic tribe of the Sahara desert, ‘repatriation’ is much more complicated matter.  


Familles de Touaregs fuyant les révolte en Libye. Photo publiée sur le site de l'ONG AP-IMIDIWAN.


The political crisis unfolding in Libya has forced millions of foreigners to flee the country. Most jump on the first flight out, but for Tuaregs, a nomadic tribe of the Sahara desert, ‘repatriation’ is a much more complicated matter.


A large number Tuaregs emigrated to Libya from Mali and Niger to serve as mercenaries in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's army. Now, dozens of families living in Libya are preparing to do the opposite and return to their homeland.


According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, border crossings between Libya and Niger have surged since the start of the unrest. Of the 2,205 people who entered Niger on March 10, over 1,800 of these were native Nigeriens. The UN estimates that 60,000 more people may arrive in Niger from Libya in the next few weeks.


Tuaregs are a nomadic Berber tribe from central Sahara. They live in Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso. Tuareg rebellions broke out in 1990 and 2000 after the Nigerien and Malian governments attempted to absorb the tribes into their jurisdiction. This prompted a mass Tuareg exodus towards Algeria and Libya.

"Tuaregs in Libya can no longer afford to make ends meet"

Assan Midal is a Tuareg guide in the Sahel desert. He currently lives in Agadez, Niger’s second-largest city. He works for the Nigerien NGO AP Imidiwan, which helps returning Tuareg families.


The first wave of Tuaregs arrived on March 13. There were 1,006 people, mainly from the Sebha region. The vast majority of migrants were Tuaregs originally from Niger, but they were also accompanied by 200 Libyan refugees who had chosen to leave their country. The convoy consisted of 15 trucks, carrying 60 people each.


Tuaregs gathered in front of the shelter in Agadez. Photo published on the Facebook page of ‘Assistance to the Tuareg families fleeing Libya’.


Distribution of food rations to the Tuaregs. Photo published in the Facebook page of ‘Help Tuareg families fleeing Libya’.



With the crisis currently sweeping the country, life has become very expensive in Libya. Most Tuareg sedentary families in the Sebha desert region can no longer make ends meet. The economy is paralyzed. Those who had low-paid work, such as cleaning or street vending, all lost their jobs. They can no longer earn a living, so most are returning home before the situation worsens.


Most of the people who come back from Libya refuse to share their views on the current conflict, even though they seem very well informed on recent developments. They don’t want to take sides:  what worries them is no longer being able to work. However, even if they refuse to say so outright, we know that many of them admire Colonel Gaddafi because most Tuareg rebellion leaders are committed to his cause [after the rebellions of 1990 and 2000, the Libyan leader acted as a mediator between tribes and local governments].


Tuaregs on their journey between Sebha and Agadez. Photo posted on the Facebook page "Help Tuareg Families fleeing Libya"


We offer our assistance on their arrival in Agadez. We have very limited resources, but we can provide them with the basics: electricity and water. We distribute food rations and provide accommodation for the poorest, in particular those who do not have family in Niger. Our shelter took in three families, a total of 25 people. At the moment, six people are still there, including a child who had to be hospitalized. The others have made contact with their families. Our correspondents in Dirkou (a town in northern Niger) have told us that other waves of immigrants are coming. We are waiting for them.”


Trucks transporting luggage and Tuaregs returning from Libya. Photo published in the Facebook page of ‘Assistance for the Tuareg families fleeing Libya’.

Post written with France 24 journalist Mahamadou Sawaneh.