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The Libyan migrant “prisons” of Europe’s making

Alessio Romenzi/UNICEF

The consequences of Italian and European migration policies for migrants and refugees stuck in Libya are ugly and stark: from militia wars to increasing extortion to overcrowded detention “prisons” where pregnant women can be sold off to ruthless smuggling gangs. Worst of all: No one knows exactly how many tens of thousands of people are trapped there, nor how many have died. A recent string of dramatic events in Sabratha – once Libya’s busiest smuggling hub – gives an inside look at the collateral damage of the attempt to stop clandestine migration from Libya.

“Please send help,” the voice crackled over the phone. “We are in bad, bad condition. We are under [the control of] some illegal smugglers… We need to come out from this place. There is no food or water.”

The man continued over the faltering connection, his words hushed and desperate. He was being held captive with hundreds of other people close to the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha, he told IRIN on 12 October. There were children and pregnant women with him, and the smugglers holding them were demanding $5,000 per person for their release. Some of the prisoners, mostly asylum seekers from Eritrea, had paid the extortion money more than once and still not been let go.

Kevin McElvaney/MSF

Then, less than 48 hours later, they escaped. Sensing an opportunity, they broke out of the building where they were being held and took shelter in a nearby mosque, according to Meron Estefanos, a Swedish-Eritrean activist and journalist who remained in touch with the group. But their moment of freedom would not last.

During the first three weeks of October, the man on the phone was far from the only person to break out of captivity. In the wake of a battle between militias for control of Sabratha that began the month before, nearly 20,000 people escaped or were freed from smuggling warehouses in and around the port city. Most were sub-Saharan Africans who had come to Libya with the goal of crossing the sea to Europe but found themselves stuck in abysmal conditions – facing torture, exploitation, and abuse. Their situation then took a drastic turn for the worse when the sea route to Italy suddenly snapped shut in the middle of July. 

Instead of remaining free after their October escape, the migrants and asylum-seekers in Sabratha were rounded up and directed through an assembly point run by Libya’s Department for Combatting Irregular Migration (DCIM), loaded in their hundreds into open-air trucks, and shipped out of the city to nominally official detention centres notorious for their awful conditions.

The dramatic chain of events in Sabratha apparently began when the Italian government adopted a new set of policies aimed at curbing the number of people reaching European shores from Libya. In a way, the re-detention of 20,000 people is a sign the policy is working – Libya is keeping would-be migrants within its borders, and the number of arrivals to the EU from Libya has significantly declined in recent months. But at what cost and for how long?


Dangerous policies

In June of this year, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti was on his way to Washington DC when he heard that more than 10,000 migrants and asylum-seekers had been rescued in the Mediterranean in a short span of time and would soon be disembarking in Italy. Not that the clandestine arrival of people from Libya to Italy is new: Every year since 2014, more than 100,000 people have crossed the central Mediterranean, and at least 13,000 have drowned while attempting the passage over those four years.

But 2018 is a parliamentary election year in Italy and public opinion has shifted decisively against migrants and asylum-seekers. The country’s northern neighbours have sealed their borders, and with EU efforts to stop smugglers at sea mostly unsuccessful and possibly even encouraging more dangerous practices, Italy has been left to shoulder the burden of hosting and managing the vast majority of new arrivals to Europe on its own.

And for the first half of 2017, people were still arriving in record-breaking numbers, even more than last year, when around 181,000 people landed in Italy.

Facing the possibility of an electoral backlash and the rise of populist and right-wing parties fuelled by anti-migrant sentiment, Minniti cancelled his trip to Washington and returned home to address the spiralling situation.

Part of his response had already been in place since February, when Italy and the EU began training and equipping the Libyan coast guard to stop migrant boats and return people to Libya before they reached international waters. Now, he doubled down on efforts to work with local authorities in major cities to encourage them to crack down on clandestine migration and allegedly struck a deal with militias in Sabratha, one of Libya’s busiest smuggling hubs, to keep migrants from leaving Libya and begin preventing rival groups from launching boats.   

Italy denies directly paying off any of Libya’s militias, but Minniti defends his dealings with the tribes – and something on the coast has clearly changed. From the middle of July to the beginning of September, the number of people landing in Italy decreased by 87 percent compared to the same period in 2016. “I think even the Italian government was surprised by the extent that this worked,” said Matteo Villa, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

The somewhat murky policy was a major success for Italy and the EU, but on the ground in Sabratha “the consequences are not at all nice”, said Villa. “You are just co-opting militias acting for you as proxies on the ground,” he said, describing this is a recipe for instability.

In mid-September, the militias rumored to be working with Italy came under attack from rival armed groups and were driven from the city. Dozens of people were killed in the clashes, and hundreds were wounded. Italy’s policies, and the desire for the legitimacy and money that comes from being in the position to stop clandestine migration, appeared to be the catalyst behind the fighting. “The other militias taking control of Sabratha wanted to show that they were even more willing to cooperate [with Italy],” Villa said.

In the wake of the conflict, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, described a situation of “human suffering and abuse on a shocking scale” among the more than 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers who had been warehoused in the city when the route to Italy snapped shut. Hundreds of people were found without clothing; there were pregnant women and newborn babies; and people had clearly been physically abused and psychologically traumatised.


Abuses in Libya

Even before Italy’s new policies, conditions for those attempting to cross through Libya were nothing short of horrific, with many finding themselves imprisoned and extorted along the way. In Sicily and Rome, IRIN spoke with recent arrivals to Italy who described their experiences. Mercy Osabouhiem, 26 years old, left her home in Nigeria with the hope of crossing the Mediterranean in search of treatment for a life-threatening stomach ailment. When she arrived in Libya last May, she was taken captive.

LISTEN: “Every night, shooting guns up and down… No food. No water. And the water they have there is salty water. It’s not good for the stomach,” she said.

“Sometimes the man would come. The man has many boys, a lot of boys that work with him, so beating us everyday, every night… Even raping, almost every night. Rape every night. He say we should pay money. If we don’t pay we don’t go anywhere.”

Eric Reidy/IRIN

Vincent, 25 years old, is also from Nigeria. He fled after police attacked protesters in Biafra in 2016.  

LISTEN: “When I reach in Libya, the same thing start happening in Libya. Problem everywhere,” he said. “You can’t even come out. You can’t even stroll or have the peace of mind. You can’t even sleep in Libya. Problem everywhere. They killed so many people there.”

Mohammed, 20 years old, is from Darfur, Sudan. He was held captive in Libya for two years before surviving the violence in Sabratha and boarding one of the few boats to leave for Italy since the crackdown. “They tortured me for two years and made me call my parents to ask for money. But I knew my parents cannot afford to pay,” he said. “After two years, I managed to escape with 40 people. At night we broke out from the prison and escaped.”

The abuses described by Mercy, Vincent, and Mohammed are likely faced by the vast majority of those attempting to pass through Libya to Europe – there are more than 43,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, but the real count may be closer to several hundred thousand. And human rights violations occur in smuggling warehouses and official detention centres alike.

The EU is aware of the terrible conditions: As it has increased its efforts to keep people in Libya, it has also given money to try to improve the situation in centres affiliated with the DCIM. But the official status of these centres is often a thin veneer. “I have yet to go to a facility that is officially under DCIM that I would say is fully run by authorities,” explained Hanan Salah, Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Instead, most official detention centres are under the control of militias and armed groups who see them as moneymaking ventures. On an unannounced visit to one DCIM affiliated facility, Salah found around 1,300 people in a room fit to hold no more than 150. People were sleeping in shifts and had limited access to toilets. “The hygienic conditions were absolutely inhumane and absolutely disgusting,” she said. “I spoke with people who hadn’t been able to change their clothes in… six months.”

These nominally official detention centres are where the 20,000 people in Sabratha were sent after being released from the smuggling warehouses in the city. Salah is concerned that the large influx of people into the DCIM centres could result in a humanitarian disaster. “They’re barely able to handle the 1,000 people or the 2,000 people that they have on any given day in one of the prisons,” she said.

The line between DCIM detention centres and the criminal enterprises surrounding clandestine migration is also permeable. “There have been proven links between those running these detention facilities and smugglers,” Salah said.

For people stuck in this system, there are only two official options: remain there indefinitely or ask to be voluntarily returned to their home countries – which for many is not a viable option. As a result, the only real hope many have is to escape, or that those running the detention centres will sell them to smugglers who will then send them across the sea.

On 23 October, IRIN spoke to W, whose name we're protecting in case of reprisals, an Eritrean who was transferred from Sabratha to an official detention centre some 120 kilometres away in Gharyan. “We are in bad conditions. We don’t have anything… We are suffering. We are sleeping on the floor… We don’t have medicine,” he said. “It is a prison. It is a big prison.”

The unknowns

As EU and Italian policies restrict the possibility of people leaving Libya by sea, and not just at Sabratha, no one really knows how many tens of thousands are in the country’s detention centres, official or otherwise.

“What we’re looking at is a situation where EU efforts to stop the boats means more and more people being trapped in horrific abuse,” said Judith Sunderland, HRW’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia. “We’re really getting to this point where we have to start talking about complicity in abuse.”

For its part, the EU says it does not provide funding directly to detention centres and instead supports the efforts of UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to improve conditions for migrants in Libya. “We condemn any act of violence against migrants,” an EU spokesperson told IRIN. “Our priority is to protect them and fight against the traffickers who take advantage from their situation.” 

While most migrants in Libya appear to be locked in official and unofficial detention for the time-being, arrival numbers in Italy are creeping back up. In August, just under 4,000 arrived. In September and October, the number has been just shy of 6,000. “Most of them are not leaving from Sabratha, so other sea routes have been opening up, but just a tiny bit,’ said Villa.

In Italy, where clandestine migration from Libya has ebbed and flowed since the mid-1990s, the expectation is that the movement of people across the Mediterranean is far from over, especially as Libya continues to be embroiled in chaos. “I don’t expect the flows to remain this low,” Villa said. In the meantime, this temporary reprieve for Italy and the EU is having horrible and untold consequences. As Villa put it bluntly: “It’s at the cost of human lives... in detention centres.”


(PHOTO CREDIT: Pictures from Alessio Romenzi/UNICEF, Kevin McElvaney/MSF, and Eric Reidy)

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