Hannah GurmanThe camera pans out on a dense sea of people pushing and shoving against one another, trying to work their way through the noisy crowd on the border between Libya and Tunisia. One lone voice narrates above the clamor: “The scene at the Libyan border is getting ugly,” he tells us and goes on to explain that these are migrant workers from Egypt who are attempting to flee the violence in Libya. “Expect more scenes like this in the days and weeks to come,” he declares in a somber tone, before the frame shifts to another dense sea of people, lying under blankets as the sand swirls about in the background. The camera zooms in on a few men who look back at the lens with vacant stares. The voice narrating the scene concludes on a tragic, lyrical note: “As the wind picks up, this growing army of stranded foreign workers is left camping in the dirt, victims of the storm that is transforming the Middle East.”

This is the voice of Ivan Watson reporting for CNN on March 1. Thanks to round-the-clock coverage, cable and network news have indeed shown many similar scenes over the last several weeks. The vast majority of these reports have, like this one, trafficked in the clichés of humanitarian crisis journalism. Focusing on the chaos and suffering of the immediate moment, they tell us little about the lives of the people who are supposedly the objects of our sympathy and nothing about the larger systemic issues fueling their plight.

The more one delves into the back story of the Libyan refugee crisis, the more it becomes clear that the current predicament of refugees in Libya is just the most recent and dramatic episode in a much larger story of injustice and abuse. And although CNN-style reports bring viewers in the United States and Europe in on the side of the refugees, the actions of Western governments tell a different story—a story of apathy toward the very migrant workers who comprise the refugee population.

Migrant Labor in the New Libya

Before the crisis, as many as 2.5 million migrants worked in Libya, making it one of the biggest importers of labor in the region. The migrants came mostly from Africa and Asia for jobs in the oil and construction industries. The influx of foreign workers began in the 1990s, when, in response to UN trade sanctions, Libya increasingly relied on sub-Saharan labor to fuel its oil economy. More recently, since 2003, when Libya’s rapprochement with the United States and Europe began, the tide of migrants has continued to rise. As part of the privatization of Libya’s economy, hundreds of thousands of workers have come from Bangladesh and the Philippines, as well as from other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Some of them entered the country on legal work permits, but the vast majority came illegally.

Since the start of the fighting, close to 300,000 migrant workers have crossed from Libya into Tunisia and Egypt. Most are from poor countries that did not provide means for their citizens to return to their home countries. Most of the refugees arrived at the camps with little but the shirt on their backs, having been robbed by Libyan officials on their way out of the country. As the men and women at the Ras Adjir camp in Tunisia explained, this was not the first time they had been robbed or assaulted by Libyan authorities.

Migrant workers in Libya, as elsewhere, are subject to abuse at the hands of their employers and the larger network of profiteers who make money off of the migrant economy. Many paid large sums to employment brokers who enlisted them in a form of indentured servitude, sometimes garnishing their wages until the debt was paid. Several Bangladeshi workers in Ras Adjir said they still owed their brokers the $5,000 fee but had no way to pay it. Migrants were often promised more money than they were actually paid. One man from Bangladesh explained that he was promised a salary of $600 a month, but wasn’t paid at all on the first job. Forced labor is not uncommon. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report on Libya, as many as one percent of all illegal migrants in Libya are victims of human trafficking forced into commercial sex work.

Illegal migrants are subject to abuse outside as well as inside the workplace. They face a greater risk of being beaten and robbed and are beholden to ghetto landlords who charge excessive rent as a form of hush money. Sub-Saharan Africans face racial discrimination as well. In 2000, Libyan youth participated in a wave of anti-immigrant violence targeted at black Africans, resulting in the deaths of between 50 and 500 people, a precursor to the current, though questionable reports that large numbers of Africans are serving as mercenaries for Gaddafi’s forces.

Although Gaddafi has opened the tap of migrant labor when it has served his political and economic purposes, variously invoking Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism, he has also cracked down hard on illegal migrants when the political winds have shifted. In recent years, the Libyan government has amped up the threat of deportation and randomly rounded up undocumented migrants or contract workers who have not renewed their licenses. Once rounded up, they are taken to one of at least ten known detention centers, where, according to Human Rights Watch, they have limited access to food, water, and sanitation. Detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch report numerous instances of physical and sexual abuse, as well as accounts of detainees being unloaded into the desert or directly to human smugglers.

European and the U.S. Participation

The European and U.S. governments not only failed to take action in response to these abuses, they also helped to fuel the problem in both direct and indirect ways. Italy, Libya’s biggest foreign investor, is also the most complicit in the Libyan government’s abuse of migrant workers. In 2008, Italy made a bid to increase its economic investment in Libya. The country’s largest energy company, Eni, pledged $28 billion to obtain lucrative contracts for developing new oil fields in Libya in the coming decades. That same year, Berlusconi and Gaddafi signed a Friendship Treaty in which Italy pledged $5 billion to Libya in exchange for favorable treatment in energy, infrastructure, and defense contracts. For its part, Libya promised to slow down the flood of illegal immigrants coming to Italy through Libya, which has long served as the main portal to Europe from Africa. In addition to effectively underwriting the Libyan detention system, Eni and other Italian companies are also the de facto employers of untold numbers of migrant workers in the Libyan oil and construction sectors. Berlusconi reluctantly suspended the Friendship Treaty at the end of February. Libya’s unrest has raised deep concerns for the Italian economy more broadly.

The enhanced friendship between Italy and Libya was just one aspect, albeit an important one, of a broader shift in the international community’s relationship with Libya since 2003. When Gaddafi threw his lot in with the United States and the EU in the war on terror, he also agreed to begin privatizing Libya’s almost exclusively state-run economy and open it up to direct foreign investment. In 2007, the International Monetary Fund praised Libya for “diversifying its economy.” Increased foreign investment meant an increased need for cheap foreign labor to build the roads and oil refineries that would form the backbone of the new globalized Libya. The same voices that celebrated the opening of Libya’s economy remained silent on the issue of migrant workers rights.

The passive response of the EU and United States on the rights of migrant workers in Libya is no exception. There has been a similar quietude in response to migrant labor abuses across the Middle East. The Persian Gulf is a particularly stark example. The grand cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates are being built largely on the backs of exploited and abused migrant workers who have little to no recourse to redress their grievances. These city-states continue to enjoy good relations with the Europe and the United States, as well as with private foreign investors looking to capitalize on their growth. Of course, migrant workers are nothing new for Europe and the United States, where they constitute large segments of the work force and are similarly lacking in legal protection and subject to various human rights abuses.

December 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants. Only 44 states have signed it. Notably, the biggest hosts to migrant workers have not, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, France, Italy, Germany, the United States, and Britain. In the lead-up to the anniversary, the Council of International Unions held a conference in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to address the issues of temporary work contracts. Other international labor groups held similar conferences and rallies to bring the issue of migrant workers’ rights to the forefront of the international community’s agenda. Where were the CNN cameras then?

How Not to Explain the Revolution in the Middle East

CNN’s disinterest in the broader context of migrant labor in Libya and elsewhere is a symptom of the corporate media’s inattention to underlying social and economic forces in contemporary conflicts. One result of this inattention has been a very narrow and distorted picture of the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Contrary to Ivan Watson’s “storm” metaphor, the events in the Middle East were not a spontaneous natural weather event. Although the demand for political freedom has been the most visible aspect of the revolts in the region, critics of neoliberalism have argued that economic grievances played a key role in fueling the ongoing conflicts. These grievances constitute another dimension of the increasingly neoliberal economy that enlists migrant workers. Like other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Libya has an extremely high rate of unemployment, although it employs vast numbers of foreign workers. The figures are murky, but experts estimate the unemployment rate to be between 25 and 30 percent. Libya’s oil wealth has so far supported subsidies to its citizens to counteract these economic pressures, but some economists believe that unemployment will rise alongside increased privatization and foreign direct investment. Elsewhere in the region, the lack of subsidies has left educated youth with little economic opportunity. These were the youth that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships and that are leading the ongoing protests in Bahrain.

The return of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to Egypt and Tunisia in particular puts added pressure on all segments of the economy in these areas.

The future of the migrant workers is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure. By the time they start looking for work in their home countries or a new destination, Ivan Watson and the CNN cameras will be far away—busy reporting on the next humanitarian crisis of the moment.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Hannah Gurman is an assistant professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She writes on the politics, economics, and culture of U.S. diplomacy and military conflict. Her forthcoming book, The Dissent Papers: The Voice of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond, will be published by the University of Columbia Press in fall 2011.