War, hunger, blackmail, abuse, exploitation, and fear – in Libya, they’ve become an inescapable destiny for migrants fleeing dire situations in their home countries
By Francesca Mannocchi, Alessio Romenzi
November 22, 2020-updated 23 December, 2020
On April 4, 2019, when U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited a detention center in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, he said he was “moved and shocked” by “the level of despair” he witnessed. He emphasized the responsibility of “the whole of the international community” and noted the dangers involved in disembarking migrants in Libya.
But even as Guterres was speaking, Gen. Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on the Libyan capital that plunged the country back into armed conflict. This was probably not a coincidence. It underscored the distance between international negotiations, photo opportunities, bilateral agreements, state visits and the real determinant of political power in Libya: guns.
The detention center Guterres visited is in western Libya, nominally managed by the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli. Many centers have been closed in recent years, but by February 2019 there were 23 recognized detention centers still in operation. The United Nations, by contrast, says there are currently 12 centers in Libya holding more than 6,000 people.
The centers should be managed by Libya’s Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), but they are in fact controlled by the militias that hold the territory where the centers are located. After being intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, migrants are usually taken to detention centers under government control. But in many cases, they are picked up by the kataib — the militias — and taken to illegal detention centers, where they are tortured and extorted for money.
Three months after the beginning of the war in Tripoli, on July 2, 2019, at 11:30 p.m., a bomb exploded at the Tajoura center, killing 53 of the 600 migrants detained there and injuring 130.
Mohammed was there that night. After escaping from Ghana in 2018, he had tried to cross the sea twice and was twice intercepted and brought back by the Libyan coast guard. The first time, he was held at the Kararim detention center in Misrata; the second time, at the Tajoura center. He survived the bombing and escaped by running over the corpses. He had to hide to prevent the militias from forcing him to fight.
A month later he tried to cross once more, but the Libyan coast guard captured him again and took him to the Trik al Sikka center. That’s where I met him in October 2019. The war was still raging, and we could distinctly hear the sound of bombs. The front line was just 7 kilometers (about 4 miles) away.
“Welcome to hell,” shouted men and children beyond iron fences as if caged, “Welcome to hell.” They begged to be taken away. They asked, “Why am I here, madame? Why am I here?”
After I went through the second fence of the gate, Mohammed stopped me, putting his hand on my forearm. “Stop here, I’ll tell you how we live,” he told me.
The first thing I noticed were his bare feet. “I lost my shoes the night they caught me. I’ve been barefoot ever since.”
Three weeks had passed. He was still wearing the clothes he had on the night he tried to cross. They had salt marks. He had no other clothes. He told me he has been abused for months, in both legal and illegal detention centers, on the southern border, in the desert, and on the coastal area.
He said he was also abused in Tajoura, where the militia could enter undisturbed despite being a building under government control.
“The guardians are threatened or have business with the militias, and sometimes during the night they opened the doors to the militia who carried away groups of migrants to reduce them to slavery, or to threaten their families, asking for a ransom.”
Mohammed gave the militias all his money and provided free labor. Eventually, he had to turn to his family again to fund another attempt at crossing.
“I travelled to Libya because I just wanted to earn some money to help my family live better in Ghana. But here I felt like an animal, worse than an animal. And the most terrible thing is that when you are captured, you do not know what to expect, where they will take you, who you will be sold to. You become a hostage of indiscriminate violence.”
In the Trik al Sikka detention center there were about 300 people, almost all in the men’s section, which is no more than a cage. There were nets everywhere, even outdoors. There were six bathrooms, but three were clogged. On the ground there were sick men in need of treatment, a disabled boy who couldn’t move his legs. In the only habitable room one man prayed while others lay on filthy mattresses.
The screams of the migrants were only interrupted by the sound of the bombs. Mohammed had the eyes of a person who has seen death and is haunted by it. His eyes were distant. They only shone when he spoke about his wife and children. They were the force pulling him through. “I resisted just for them,” he said. “Last time I spoke with my wife was the night I tried to cross the sea, then, when the coast guard brought me here, the soldiers took my money and my phone. My wife doesn’t know where I am, if I’m dead or alive.”
A few days before my visit to Trik al Sikka, in September 2019, the U.N. published a detailed report in which they openly accused local and Libyan state authorities of involvement in human trafficking. The report also indicated how the business model of human trafficking has adapted to the conflict, with militias using detention centers for profit. The United Nations also said they were alarmed that armed groups were trying to obtain legitimacy, committing to oppose human trafficking with the “sole aim of receiving technical and material assistance from abroad.”
Italy has led on this by signing a memorandum of understanding with Libya in 2017, with the aim, at least on paper, of combating illegal migration and improving the conditions of the detention centers. The memorandum has been automatically renewed and with it the substantial Italian funds to the Libyan coast guard. But conditions remain hellish, and it remains impossible for international organizations and the U.N. to reach the illegal centers managed by the militias where migrants are tortured and blackmailed.
Nafisa Saed Musa lived in Darfur, Sudan. Her village, Shetaya, was set on fire in 2003 by the Janjaweed militias. Nafisa lost her husband in the fire and her children were burned alive. She has only one son left — Abdallah, aged 27. To save him, she decided to leave. She reached Libya last year, with the hope of crossing the sea and living a safe and dignified life in Europe.
“I just want to see my son working and finally smiling. I want nothing more than that. Instead, we fled a war and found ourselves trapped in another war, in Libya.”
When I met Nafisa, she was sleeping with her son in a school that hosts migrants in Garden City, Tripoli. Haftar’s offensive had just begun, and the Libyan Red Crescent had found a building to house the migrants. There was not enough food or water. The inhabitants of the neighborhood resented the presence of the 70 migrant families, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans. The Red Crescent staff did what they could.
Nafisa’s eyes were downcast. She looked grim, remembering what Libya had been like for her and her son. As soon as they entered Libya, an armed group captured Abdallah in Umm al Aranib, in the south. They asked for 5,000 Libyan dinars to let him go.
“I didn’t have that much money, so all the Sudanese from Darfur who travelled with us collected money to pay the ransom. Someone gave 30 dinars, someone a hundred, whoever could gave more, until we collected what the militia asked for.”
Everyone knew that Abdallah was the only son she had left. The ransom paid, the captors brought her son back to her. Together they moved to Tripoli.
Abdallah never smiles. He has the marks of those days on his body, the scars on his arms a map of abuse and torture.
“In Darfur people were dying on the street,” he told me, “dying in refugee camps, dying of hunger.
I thought I was leaving the violence behind. Instead the war followed me here. For two months, in Sebha, I was tortured by the militias. They beat me, burnt my arms with burning irons and put out cigarettes on my back. When they kidnapped me, I told them that I had no money and that my mother and I were coming from a refugee camp. They told me: ‘If you don’t have money call your family, and if they don’t have the money, then either work or fight for us.’”
Abdallah told me they forced migrants to steal gold from Sebha’s warehouses, load weapons, and fight. Whoever rebelled was killed. “I’ve seen so many people die around me,” he said.
After they arrived in Tripoli, Abdallah and his mother tried to go to the UNHCR (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) office. But militias extorted them for 650 dinars before they were allowed to reach it.
“We registered, asking for protection, and we were hosted in a house in Qasr bin Gashir, on the outskirts of Tripoli. Then the war began. And we fled here. There is not enough food, not enough water. But at least we’re alive.”
Two months after we met, the Garden City school was emptied in the face of hostility from inhabitants of the neighborhood. There was no news about half of the families. A few dozen ended up living under the bridges of the Libyan capital’s great roads. Many, according to local NGOs, ended up in the hands of militias and their detention centers.
Asaad al Jafeer worked for the Libyan Red Crescent, helping families in Garden City for a year. He tried to help them even after they ended up on the street.
“The men risked being kidnapped and forced to fight. Women risked being sexually abused,” he told me. “Living on the street, women would have to go to the mosque to wash themselves.”
Asaad said he has been appealing to the United Nations for months but hasn’t received a response.
“The U.N. have huge responsibilities in Libya. You see them on television shouting that they no longer want to see people die in the sea. I wonder what the difference is between seeing them die at sea and letting them die on the street. They mouth words like ‘human rights’ – here are the humans, where are the rights?”
In recent years, U.N. agencies have repeatedly declared that they do not consider Libya a safe port. Last year, after the Tajoura detention center bombing, the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) released a joint statement urging every effort “to prevent the people rescued in the Mediterranean from being disembarked in Libya, a country that cannot be considered a safe port.” In July 2019, UNHCR decided to close the Gathering and Departure Facility in Tripoli. That was the place where vulnerable families should have waited for their relocation flights, but in a short time it had transformed into yet another detention center.
The U.N. has been used as an alibi in recent years to justify European policies on externalizing borders – turning one country’s border security over to another country. Yet U.N. agencies have repeatedly said that they are not free to monitor the conditions of the centers since they can’t visit without long negotiations and they cannot enter illegal detention centers since few know how many there are, where they are located, and how many migrants they hold.
On May 28, 2020, 30 people — 26 Bangladeshis and four Sudanese — were killed by a group of traffickers in a smuggling warehouse in Mizdha, near the city of Gharian, southwest of Tripoli, which at that time was under Haftar’s control. They had been kidnapped by a militia in the desert between Benghazi and Tripoli and taken to the Mizdha depot. The survivors said they paid between $8,000 and $10,000 to reach Europe via Libya. The deal with the Libyan traffickers was mediated by other Bengali citizens. Once in Libya, the traffickers raised the price. But after 15 days of abuse and torture, the migrants mutinied. Most were killed.
A young Libyan who works in the local IOM staff and spoke on the condition of anonymity believes that the depot actually housed up to 200 migrants. But they were moved before the authorities could reach the site of the massacre. “The question is how many structures of this type there are in Libya,” he said. “For both local and international staff, it is not only dangerous to try to reach these places but it is also dangerous to try to understand more about them.”
Two months later, the night of July 27, a boat that probably left from Zuwara was intercepted and brought back by the Libyan coast guard. On board were 65 Sudanese and eight Moroccans. The coast guard took them to Khoms, 120 kilometers (almost 75 miles) east of Tripoli. During the disembarkation, some tried to escape. Libyan forces opened fire, killing two Sudanese boys. A third died on the way to the hospital, and another five were seriously injured. Twenty-three people were transferred to the Souq al Khamis detention center. The rest escaped.
The week before, an Eritrean asylum seeker had arrived at the UNHCR day center in Tripoli from Beni Walid. He was with a group of compatriots, severely malnourished after spending months in the hands of smugglers. He was seeking medical assistance, but there was no doctor or U.N. worker around to help. He died of starvation.
After the killing of Sudanese boys in Khoms, IOM head of mission Federico Soda tweeted:
“The suffering of migrants in Libya is intolerable. The use of excessive violence has once again caused senseless deaths, in a context characterized by a lack of practical initiatives aimed at changing a system that is often unable to ensure any kind of protection.”
Such words from a U.N. representative are an emphatic reminder of the urgency of the situation and should discourage dehumanizing rhetoric from politicians. But the words are empty when it is unclear who holds power in Libya, and where. Who has the commitment to enforce the law? And what sanctions exist for those who break it?
Forcing migrants captured in the Mediterranean back to Libya’s migration centers will not deter them; it will only increase their motivation to risk the sea again.
Munir had fled Eritrea with his family. They crossed Sudan to enter Libya, arrived in Kufra, and paid traffickers the agreed sum of $4,000. They were told that the amount included the trip through the desert and the sea. But in Kufra, the smugglers sold them to another armed group who asked for $4,000 more to get them to the coast. They gave them what they had left in a desperate bid to reach the coast. Instead they were loaded onto a truck and taken to an illegal detention center in Beni Walid.
“My wife was pregnant; they asked us for more money, but we had nothing left,” he told me when I met him at a facility during the war last February. “We phoned our families in tears. I was afraid my wife would lose the baby. My brothers sent us money borrowed from neighbors, so we finally arrived in Tripoli. But Libyan forces arrested us during a roundup because we don’t have documents. We are considered illegal here.”
They were taken to the Qasr bin Gashir Detention Center in Tripoli, where they were separated and held in three hangars: men in one and women and children in others. Munir’s wife gave birth alone.
“We did not have enough to eat, we were treated like animals,” he told me. “But above all we could not talk to our wives and we knew that at night women risked being raped.”
Munir and his relatives were in Qasr bin Gashir center for five months. A U.N. staffer visited only once and was not allowed to speak to Munir. But when the war in Tripoli started, the guards fled.
“We stayed there locked in for five days, without food and with little water. We only gave water and sugar to the children. After almost a week, gangs of gunmen arrived who wanted money and phones. But there was no more money. Many people disappeared in those hours. We do not know what happened to them, if they escaped or were forced to join the soldiers on the front line.”
They were eventually evacuated from the Qasr bin Gashir center; most were transferred to Zawhia, to another detention center. Munir and his family were sent to a facility in Tripoli where I met him. “There is no safe place for us in this country,” he said.
One month after we met in Tripoli, Munir texted me to say that he tried to pay to enter a detention center. He believed it was the only way to legally leave the country if the UNHCR deemed his family vulnerable enough to be put on the list of those who could leave through a humanitarian corridor. To be on the list, he had to be in a legal detention center.
Paying for one’s own detention: This is a tragic paradox, another scandalous consequence of the externalization of borders.
Seven months have passed since the last message I received from Munir. His phone has been unreachable since April.
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