People & Power

Libya: The migrant trap

People and Power investigates how migrants trying to reach Europe fall into the hands of Libya’s militias.

Thousands of refugees and economic migrants, many dreaming of a better life in Europe, are getting caught up en route in crisis-torn Libya. Their fate is often determined by the heavily armed militias to whom the country’s hard pressed transitional government has lost control. So what happens to those ensnared in Libya’s migrant trap?

Ever since the Libyan civil war and the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in October 2011, both genuine asylum-seekers and would-be economic migrants from across North and sub-Saharan Africa have been flooding towards Libya.

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On arrival, however, some have gone no further and have managed to make a place in a country that is still struggling with the chaotic and violent after-shocks of revolution, but which at least holds out the promise of reconstruction. Others, having heard that that the borders of this once heavily-policed state are now more porous than they used to be, have sought to use its long Mediterranean coast as a springboard to Europe – paying people-smugglers to secure an often wildly dangerous berth onwards to Italy or Greece. Tragically, many of these people will die in the process or, having endured hundreds of miles of open sea in a leaky boat, will be detected and detained on arrival and ultimately deported back from whence they came.

We want to organise the new Libya, and everyone has to be in the right place in this society for the country to be fixed and secure. We won’t take orders from anybody telling us how to act. We’re doing this because it’s our patriotic duty. This is about our legacy for our children.

by Abdul Razag, former Libyan intelligence officer, now a militia leader

But many thousands every month are also picked up by those who now exercise real authority in Libya – not the official forces of the country’s desperately weak transitional government, but the heavily armed and often competing militias who control large parts of the country and much of the capital Tripoli.

Abdul Razag, once one of the former dictator’s intelligence officers, is the commander of one of these former revolutionary brigades. Like most of his men, he says he turned against Gadaffi out of patriotism, driven by a desire to see Libya liberated. Now he and his brigade have assumed responsibility for mounting stop-and-detain operations on the approaches to Tripoli, keen to stop the flow of largely unwanted migrants before they can vanish out of reach. They haven’t ever been officially mandated by the authorities to carry out this task though the transitional government clings to the idea that the militias are under its control – but are simply doing it because they believe it is necessary.

Razag explains that just because he is a now militia chief, it doesn’t mean he has forgotten his former professional obligation towards ensuring national security.

“We want to organise the new Libya, and everyone has to be in the right place in this society for the country to be fixed and secure. We won’t take orders from anybody telling us how to act. We’re doing this because it’s our patriotic duty. This is about our legacy for our children.”

Among the hundreds of people they stop and detain at roadside checkpoints are some genuine refugees fleeing persecution in other countries and many more economic migrants who are simply hoping for a better life in Europe. Either way, if there is a scintilla of suspicion about their papers they are pulled out of their cars and buses at gunpoint, loaded into the brigade’s own vehicles and driven off to makeshift detention centres for processing. In the case of Abdul Razag’s militia that means a building that used to house the cafeteria for Tripoli’s zoo. Upon arrival the migrants are questioned and all are screened for HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis and other diseases – for which they must pay 10 Euros apiece. There is no more tolerance for the sick than for those whose documents aren’t in order. Very few will eventually be released. Most will be held – crammed by the dozen into locked rooms with no windows and little if any sanitation — until they are thrown out of the country. When the centre becomes too full to fit any more in, some are transferred to the city’s once notorious Abu Salim prison, where conditions are even more unpleasant and food and water is hard to come by.

“We have big problems here,” says one man in a cramped room full of dispirited men.

“This morning we haven’t eaten. Sometimes they flog us. When we make a noise they beat us.”

Another group of Senegalese and Nigerian migrants, who had been held in Abu Salim for over a week while their fate was decided, were lying apathetically in a corner. They explained they had also not been given food or water that day and they had been reduced to drinking from the single cracked toilet in the corner.

“We’re here, we suffer, we do not know how it will end. We just want to go home.”

Few have any idea what their future hold, but most will be deported and told not to come back. Last year, more than 25,000 people detained by the militias were pushed back over Libya’s southern borders into Niger and Chad.

Some, of course, evade the clutches of the militia patrols and hide out in the back streets of Tripoli. Others — surprisingly – are given temporary leave to stay but find it difficult to survive amidst the chaos of a still lawless city.

Patrick, a refugee from conflict in the Ivory Coast, whom Razag’s unit had allowed to remain, was scraping out a living with his sister and wife in a couple of cramped rooms in a crumbling apartment block, while they sought work.

“It’s not much,” he said ruefully. “We’re not looking for luxury. Just enough to survive and make it work out. How Libya is today is not our fault. It’s out of our control. If there was no war in the Ivory Coast I would never have come here.”

Patrick had hoped his status in Libya would be officially recognised by now. Instead, jobs are almost impossible to find, and abuse and exploitation remain a fact of life. His sister Maloula managed to get work as a housekeeper. But when she turned up at her employer’s house, she was forced to work without pay and held captive for nine months until she managed to escape.

“We were led to believe that Libya was okay, that Libya was a paradise,” she said. “But when you get here it’s the opposite: what you find is suffering and often here when you pass someone in the street they’ll throw a stone at you.”

She went quite for a moment and then explained why she thought things were so bad. “They treat us as slaves, they do not like blacks. They are racist.”

Back at the brigade’s detention centre in the zoo, another busload of migrants was being readied for transfer to Abu Salim prison. Some of the militiamen with them were putting on surgical masks. “All these people are tired and sick,” explained one of the guards. “It is like the plague, they will destroy everything and contaminate us. We must send them home.”


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