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Terrified Asian workers abandoned in Libya

MANILA, Feb 25 – Tens of thousands of workers from Asia\’s poorest countries have been left to fend for themselves in riot-torn Libya, as their governments struggle to bring them home, labour groups said Friday.

Terrifying reports are emerging from the north African country of migrant workers being abandoned by their employers and being forced to bunker down as looters, bandits and mercenaries rampage.

An estimated 100,000 workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh remain stuck in Libya more than a week after the violence erupted, with their governments unable to mount quick or extensive evacuation programmes for them.

"The protesters shoot people on sight, it\’s not safe to go out. We don\’t have food and money. We are almost starving. Nobody can imagine how dangerous the situation is," Bangladeshi worker Kabir Hossain told AFP by telephone.

Hossain, 24, said he and 17 other Bangladeshi construction workers were trapped inside a Libyan desert work site after their employers abandoned them.

"They told us we would have to find our own way out of the country," he said via a scratchy mobile-phone connection.

Garry Martinez, chairman of Migrante International, a support group for Philippine workers abroad, said he had received similar reports of hundreds of Filipinos being abandoned by employers across Libya.

"They are very afraid, very hungry, very tired," Martinez told AFP.

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"They are panicking. They can hear gunfire. They are calling on the government to send some help to them."

Martinez said he had been in contact with 145 Filipinos who had been abandoned by their South Korean construction company employers along the Libyan border with Tunisia.

And he said some Filipina nurses in Tripoli were carrying their national flag above their heads when they ventured outside to buy food, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from armed Libyan groups.

A frantic exodus of foreigners began this week as strongman Moamer Kadhafi unleashed his security forces in a brutal effort to crush a revolution.

Many nations have chartered boats and planes to get their nationals out of Libya.

But some cash-strapped governments, particularly those of the Philippines and Bangladesh, have not had the resources or networks to mount similar efforts.

"There are severe limitations on what we can do. Perhaps if we were as rich a country as America then we could have consulates anywhere and everywhere," Philippine President Benigno Aquino said on Thursday.

Nevertheless, Aquino insisted his government was doing all it could to help the roughly 30,000 Filipinos in Libya performing a wide range of jobs, from low-paid labouring work to skilled professional employment such as engineering.

His government on Friday announced plans to evacuate 13,000 Filipinos by boat and plane, however it was unable to say when this would occur.

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"We are very frustrated and alarmed at the way our government has handled this," Migrante\’s Martinez told AFP.

"The response of our government has come too late. For nine days the violence has escalated and we haven\’t seen a blueprint for evacuations."

The plight of the estimated 60,000 Bangladeshis in Libya appeared even bleaker with the government in Dhaka saying it had no firm evacuation plans for them.

"It is still not clear what measure we will be able to take to evacuate them, we are hoping to move them to safety," foreign ministry spokesman Syed Masud Khandker told AFP on Thursday.

In Thailand, relatives of the 23,000 Thais working in Libya lobbied local employment offices this week demanding help for their loved ones, amid reports those stranded were running low on food and water.

The Thai government reported it had begun evacuation efforts, with a ship expected to collect around 2,000 people from worker camps in Tripoli late on Friday.

William Gois, Manila-based regional co-ordinator for labour rights group Migrants Forum in Asia, said rich governments should help evacuate all vulnerable workers in Libya and not just their own citizens.

"At times of crisis, this is not when you should discriminate against nationality," Gois said.

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