Pope Francis has compared detention centres for migrants and refugees in Libya with concentration camps, saying the world was being given only a diluted version of how hellish life really is for the people living there.
Thousands of refugees and migrants are reported to be held in 11 “official” detention centres across the country as well as “private prisons” run by armed groups and traffickers where extortion, rape and abuse are rampant, according to the United Nations, medical agencies as well as the migrants and refugees.
The pope, who has in the past called for the camps to be closed, made his comments on Wednesday in his homily during a mass to mark the seventh anniversary of his trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the landing place for many migrants making the perilous crossing from North Africa.
Departing from his prepared address, he recalled how an interpreter translating his conversation with a migrant seven years ago gave him only a “distilled” version of what the migrant was actually saying.
“This is what is happening today in Libya. They give us the distilled version,” said the pope, who has made the defence of migrants a significant part of his seven-year-old papacy.
“Yes, there is a war [in Libya] and we know that is ugly, but you cannot imagine the hell that people live there in those lagers of detention,” he said.
Lager is an abbreviation of the German word “Konzentrationslager”, or concentration camp.
“All these people had was hope as they were crossing the sea,” Francis said.
Libya acts as a major gateway for African migrants hoping to reach Europe.
According to the United Nations, there are more than 40,000 refugees and migrants in Libya.
A 2018 UN report highlighted that migrants are subjected to “unimaginable horrors” from the time they enter Libya, during their stay and in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean, if they make it that far.
“The conditions in these centres are crazy,” a 17-year-old migrant from the Gambia, who did not wish to be named, told Al Jazeera.
“Sometimes you get food, sometimes you don’t. If they give you bread, you eat half and save half. You don’t know when you will eat next. If you don’t have money, your only way out is either escaping or death.
“If they catch people running away, they shoot at you. They may shoot you in the leg, they may shoot you in the head. Everything is a risk.”
Another migrant from the Central African Republic described the time inside a centre as the “time between life and death”, adding many of his friends died there because of the brutal conditions.
Human rights groups said abuses, including beating and forced labour, are rife in the detention centres.
“The conditions are dire. Hundreds of people are locked in crowded hangars with no access to proper sanitation facilities. Many of them have been detained for months or even years. Worry is all they know,” Amira Rajab Elhemali, national field operations assistant for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told Al Jazeera.
Detainees in the Libyan camps include those who left on boats for Europe and were brought back by the European Union-backed Libyan Coast Guard, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.