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Thousands of Vietnamese workers await evacuation from Libya; those who've returned are saddled with debt

Vietnamese workers from Libya arrive at the Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on February 26.

The sounds of gunfire, thousands of people in panic and his own feelings of fear will haunt him for the rest of his life, says Nguyen Huu Tien.

The Vietnamese worker from Hanoi's Thach That District was working as a cook at a road construction site in Darnah - a city some 200 kilometers from the Libyan capital of Tripoli - when the unrest broke out on February 15.

"On the evening of February 18, four armed men wearing masks broke into our construction site, firing warning shots with their rifles. They threatened us, robbed us of our belongings and the company's cars before leaving," he said.

Tien said the terrified crowd ran helter-skelter trying to find a hiding place while the gunfire continued.

"The director asked us on the loudspeaker system to gather at the workers' houses. They robbed all of our belongings. It was terrible. They pointed the guns at us and we couldn't imagine the casualties if they'd fired," he said, adding that there were around 100 Vietnamese workers at the site.

The following day, Tien and other workers moved to a seaport some 50 kilometers away, only to see burned ships and terrified crowds of workers and tourists.

"We sought shelter in a church and were locked inside for several days. Each person got a loaf of bread and a little water. There was no water for cleaning. Some of us were desperate and thought of we were going to die."

The workers stayed in the church until February 25 when some locals said the situation had improved. Then they headed toward the Tripoli airport. However, the airport was closed and they had to reach the border with Egypt.

The fleeing group had to wait for two more days at the border to carry out long procedures because up to 70 Vietnamese workers had lost their passports. "The desert night comes very fast with a chilling cold. We were exhausted. Some fainted after days of hunger and starvation," he said.

Suffering regular sandstorms and cold nights near the border in the Sahara desert, they were finally sponsored by the Vietnamese Embassy in Egypt and arrived home on February 27.

Tien's nightmare abroad is over, but Vietnamese authorities are still struggling to evacuate thousands of Vietnamese workers out of Libya. Many of them had been taken to neighboring countries and were waiting for flights home. Governmental statistics show that there were more than 10,000 Vietnamese workers in Libya when the unrest broke out.

Waiting to cross

On March 1, the Commission to Evacuate Vietnamese Workers (CEVW) from Vietnam dispatched a team of 62 officials to Cairo to facilitate procedures and send the workers home. A flight on the same day carried 318 workers back to Vietnam.

Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Minister of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, said that there were around 4,000 Vietnamese workers in Libya, including 500 in Tripoli. Around 2,000 of these will be evacuated in the next several days, she said.

Several CEVW officials departed Cairo on March 2 for Tunisia to help evacuate Vietnamese workers from there.

On Wednesday, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) made a plea for hundreds of planes to end a gridlock at the Tunisia border with Libya, where "acres of people" were still waiting to cross in freezing conditions.

"My colleague on the ground says acres of people, as far as you can see, are waiting to cross," UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes told AFP.

One acre is approximately the size of an American football field.

"They are outdoors in the freezing cold, under the rain, many of them have spent three or four nights outside already," said the spokeswoman.

"It's really chaotic. In Egypt we have 77,320 people who have crossed. A similar number have crossed into Tunisia, it's possible that it's even 100,000 more. So we're looking at over 150,000 people who have fled into the two countries," said Wilkes.

Not out of the woods

Nguyen Viet Xuan from the north-central province of Ha Tinh was among the Vietnamese workers sent back from Libya on February 28.

"You could have died at any time. I was really scared at seeing demonstrators, guns and people fleeing all over the place," said the 24-year-old plumber who had been sent to the north African country in May last year.

However, Xuan is now experiencing a nightmare as returns home with empty pockets, and a mountain of unpaid debt yet to be scaled.

"It's really sad to see my parents suffering poverty from my loans. I don't know when I will be able to pay off my debt," he said, adding that he couldn't think about returning to Libya once more to earn money and repay loans of more than VND20 million (US$959).

The situation is worse for Vu Ngoc Anh of Thai Binh Province, who was sent to Libya on February 17 this year after paying nearly VND40 million to a local labor firm. Only a few days after he began working, he was sent back to Vietnam without any payment.

Labor minister Ngan said that concerned Vietnamese authorities are focusing all their efforts on getting the workers back from Libya before considering how to support them.

Doan Dai Thanh, director of the International Manpower Supply and Trade Company (Sona), said they were waiting for instructions from the Department of Overseas Labor Management about compensating the workers. The company had dispatched some 2,000 workers to Libya.

Meanwhile, the deputy director of the Department of Overseas Labor Management, Dao Cong Hai said they would support each worker with VND1 million for transportation expenses. Other support and compensation will be decided according to relevant laws, he added.

Vo Van Quyen of Nghe An Province was sent back after less than a month of working in Libya. He was yet to receive his first month's salary before he had to return home to debts of VND35 million ($1,685).

"I only hope for compensation from the [Vietnamese labor] firm but I don't know when and how much they will pay," he said, adding that while he waited, he has to pay interest on the loans he has taken to get a job abroad.

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