Tripoli and Misrata, Libya – Tesru, a 23-year-old Eritrean, bakes in the sun while he waits in line for a doctor to treat his protruding broken ribs at a detention centre in Misrata. Tesru had forked out $1,600 to a trafficker to flee his repressive country and reach Libya’s coast. He was arrested a month ago by police, whom he said beat and injured him with the back of a gun. His story is just one of many from asylum seekers in this detention facility who have not spoken to the UN or an embassy official.
Here, hundreds of men, women and children take turns sleeping while sitting up in the cramped and fetid space, and have to share four working toilets. They are only allowed out for head counts and medical visits because the guards say they are afraid they would scale the walls and escape.
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“Our biggest concerns are the numbers of people, the boats and the desert,” Dr Hussein Al-Sharif told Al Jazeera. “The international community needs to pay attention.”
Last week, after hundreds of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, European leaders scrambled to bulk up their maritime patrols and explore controversial measures to strike at the wide-ranging, lucrative trafficking networks operating inside Libya.
According to the United Nations, 40,000 people have arrived in Europe so far this year, most fleeing the raging wars in Somalia, Eritrea, and Syria. Last year’s figures topped 170,000, but with far fewer reported deaths at sea.
The Italian search and rescue operation dubbed Mare Nostrum plucked an estimated 100,000 people from the sea, but shuttered late last year after European Union leaders blamed it as a costly “pull factor” for migration. The EU border agency Frontex now operates a scaled-back border patrol, sailing closer to Europe’s coast, but dangerously overcrowded boats continue to cross and the death toll continues to mount.
The European policy of closing doors and erecting fences to bar asylum seekers is leading people into the hands of smugglers, and to very dangerous choices.
“The European policy of closing doors and erecting fences to bar asylum seekers is leading people into the hands of smugglers, and to very dangerous choices,” said Hernan del Valle, a humanitarian adviser for the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which will send medical workers out on a search and rescue boat starting this week.
“This is not going to make the problem go away. Instead, the EU should look at safe legal routes for people trying to reach Europe.”
Samer, a 38-year-old refugee from Syria, now ekes out a living working in construction in Misrata. He nearly lost his brother, Abou Fares, his pregnant wife and two children, to a shipwreck one year ago.
Abou Fares paid $2,600 to traffickers for his family, Samer said, and they were put on a large boat with about 500 other people, most crammed below in the hold. They lived through a terrifying ordeal: When the ship took on water and started to sink at sea, his brother’s family were among the lucky survivors to be rescued by the Italian navy. They are now in Germany.
Samer, who is the breadwinner for his wife and children, also sends money home to relatives trapped in the fighting between the Syrian regime and rebels. He regularly talks to Abou Fares by phone.
“I would go if I didn’t have to take care of my sick mother,” said Samer, who struggles to make ends meet in Libya’s worsening economy. “My hometown is completely destroyed.”
Former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s security apparatus previously controlled the trafficking corridors through Libya. But since the 2011 revolution, security has disintegrated and warring militias now operate along the long and porous desert and sea borders, making money by ferrying humans, gasoline, food, drugs and weapons.
For many migrants, surviving the ocean is the last leg of their trip to Europe, a harrowing journey across treacherous borders and the Sahara.
Libya is now split between two governments: one based in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk, both backing conflicts between local tribes to seize power and the country’s assets.
With the collapse of centralised rule and the country strapped for cash – and with embassies and international organisations like the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration leaving Libya for Tunisia – there is little support for the overstretched coastguard, which has four working boats to police hundreds of miles of ocean. There is also no funding for official detention centres and desert patrols that can challenge the flourishing criminal networks.
An EU proposal to militarily strike empty traffickers’ boats along the coast has been condemned by both of Libya’s rival governments. The Tripoli-based Libya Dawn government has asked to work with EU counterparts on the issue, while in a recent interview, General Khalifa Haftar, aligned with the Tobruk-based government, argued for a lifting of a UN weapons embargo to fight “terrorism” inside Libya.
Meanwhile, the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean were foremost on the minds of Christian worshippers from west and east African states during an uplifting service with music and food in a residential villa in Tripoli dubbed the African Church.
Churchgoers said Libyan militias targeted migrants with racist attacks, beatings, robberies, torture and kidnappings. They said they were fearful of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which filmed the brutal execution of captured Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees last week.
“We try to warn people not to cross the sea because they could die, and that there are no jobs in Europe,” said Ghanaian priest Edward Blasu. “But no one will tell us they are leaving. They could leave that night.”