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Destination Europe: Misery and Misunderstandings, part 2

While some migrants are eager to be repatriated from Libya, others refuse to give up on their dreams or risk ending up vulnerable and unsupported back home

Tom Westcott/IRIN

As the EU sets new policies and makes deals with African nations to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants from seeking new lives on the continent, what does it mean for those following dreams northwards and the countries they transit through? From returnees in Sierra Leone and refugees resettled in France to smugglers in Niger and migrants in detention centres in Libya, IRIN explores their choices and challenges in this multi-part special report, Destination Europe.
Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked

In May, IRIN’s Tom Westcott gained rare access to detention centres inside Libya and spent weeks interviewing dozens of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.

Westcott found time-consuming registration and evaluation procedures and misunderstandings about who is eligible for various programmes left anger and disenchantment in migrant communities, where news travels fast and often inaccurately. The first instalment of this two-part feature profiled the characters involved and told of their frustrations, fears, and dreams. This second part delves further into EU policies and UN return programmes to see if they are working or if, in the words of one senior Libyan immigration official, “it’s like digging a hole in the desert, it just keeps filling up with sand.”

☰ UN programmes: The facts and the figures

With estimations of the number of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya reaching as high as a million, and many of these economic migrants, the UN and EU programmes only aim to help the most vulnerable refugees first.

Since September 2017, the UN’s refugee agency has “reached solutions” for 2,085 refugees and asylum seekers, with 1,287 being sent to Niger, 312 to Italy, and 10 to Romania, with 476 others having submitted resettlement submissions to third countries, according to UNHCR’s head of external relations in Libya, Paula Barrachina Esteban.

Only one percent of those registered by the UN as refugees or asylum seekers have so far been resettled. Looking at the numbers or registered asylum seekers and refugees compared to the the current rate of resettlement, it appears the UN has an unmanageable task on its hands. Excluding around 5,000 people currently held in detention who can’t yet be processed under UN regulations, UNHCR has registered 52,739 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, more than 7,000 of whom were registered in the first four months of this year.

UNHCR’s 2018 target is to evacuate 5,000 people from Libya but, even for this year, the project is underfunded. “We need funds to be able to finish this year and we also need more countries to be generous and offer resettlement spaces,” said Esteban.

In Niger, for instance, the speed at which resettlement places could be found was slower than the evacuation process from Libya – the programme was suspended for two months this year. By early May, only 104 out of 1,020 refugees evacuated from Libya to Niger had been resettled in European countries, says UNHCR Niger external relations officer Louise Donovan, though she adds: “The fluidity and rapidity of the process has greatly improved.”

But while the international community and Western organisations continue to ignore the situation in Libya’s desert south, where borders stand wide open and border points remain mostly controlled by volunteer local militias, the effectiveness of IOM repatriation and UNHCR resettlement schemes is questionable.

The total number of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers repatriated or transferred from Libya so far this year – 9,765 – is less than half the number of either new or returning migrants crossing into Libya over the same time-frame. The numbers entering via the Niger-Libya desert route alone is averaging 4,800 migrants per month, according to two smugglers working this route – who estimated 24,000 had entered this way so far this year. No figures are available for other routes into Libya.

Many migrants, misunderstanding eligibility, procedures, and the general limitations of the programme, believe they will be sent en masse, any day, to Niger and, from there, to Europe. As word spread about the UNHCR resettlement programme, some migrants in Libya have starting travelling to Niger, a poverty-stricken country that cannot offer enough opportunities for its own citizens let alone migrant workers, mistakenly believing they could be “fast-tracked” to Europe via the UNHCR scheme.

“Evacuations are a life-saving mechanism so we evacuate the most vulnerable cases, mainly from detention centres but also some from the urban caseload of 52,000 who are in a vulnerable situation,” says Esteban, adding that protection needs, even amongst the urban caseload, remain high, including those at risk of detention and with medical issues.


In the departure lounge of Tunis Airport, nine young men from Sierra Leone in matching light-grey tracksuits clutch boarding passes and travel documents; their only luggage a couple of white plastic bin-bags bearing the logo of the UN’s migration agency, IOM. They are painfully thin but in good spirits. They are going home.

“I’m so happy I’m going home because I want to start a new life, and I’m grateful to IOM for this opportunity,” says 30-year-old Sallo. “My two years in Libya were like a prison sentence, and finally I will be free.”

When IOM officials visited the Tajoura Detention Centre on the outskirts of Tripoli – where Sallo was held for three months after being arrested in the house he shared with tens of other migrants – and offered him free repatriation under a scheme entitled Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR), he jumped at the chance, along with 119 other eligible detainees in his block.

“It’s terrible to be a black person in Libya,” says Sallo. “They treat us so badly, like slaves, and yet we’re all Africans. I’ve had the hardest two years of my life,” he says. “If I knew it would be like that, I would never have left my home. Many people in Sierra Leone lied to us, saying it was easy to get to Libya, easy to work there and make money, and very easy to take the boat to Europe. But it was all lies. I want to be interviewed on the radio or television when I get home to tell my countrymen the truth about Libya and advise them not to go.”

The “many people” to whom Sallo refers are part of a complex network of human traffickers working across swathes of Africa. Many migrants spoke of “new friends” in their home countries who claimed to be back from Libya on holiday and, over a period of weeks, built up relationships with them, describing enviable work scenarios, an easy sea crossing, and often promising lucrative jobs in Libya and even Europe. Some “friends” even made the journey with new migrants but then demanded money or sold them when they eventually reached Libya.

Sallo looks chronically malnourished, his cheekbones standing out sharply from his face. His teeth, framed by a broad grin, are worn down to little points. “My wife won’t recognise me when she sees me because I have lost so much weight. I was like Rambo, with a very strong physique, when I first came to Libya,” he says.

Sallo hasn’t spoken to his wife and two children since his arrest earlier this year. “She doesn’t know if I’m even alive,” he says. “I’m looking forward to surprising her. IOM said we’ll each get $50 [in local currency] when we arrive and I will buy a big bag of rice because I can’t go home with nothing. I will give her the rice and the rest of the money.”

Sallo says IOM has promised to contact returnees after a month to see how they are getting on and might offer resettlement funds to help them start a new life. “I think I’d like to be a taxi driver, although I tried it before and it was hard to make money, but I know it’s something I can do,” he says. “Driving is nice work and I will enjoy my freedom. I didn’t know what freedom was before I went to Libya.”

Tom Westcott/IRIN
Female migrants pray in a corner of one of two women's rooms at Tajoura Detention Centre.

Dissatisfied returnees

Despite Sallo’s optimism, the reality of the IOM-run, EU-funded repatriation scheme can disappoint those it is intended to help, particularly with regard to financial support for resettlement.

Tripoli’s three functioning churches, all of which have a large number of African congregants, have been working regularly with IOM, registering many vulnerable cases for repatriation. But they are becoming disenchanted with the VHR programme, which initially seemed to provide a lifeline of hope.

David, a church volunteer, has helped many members of his congregation register for VHR. Increasingly, returnees are contacting him with complaints and pleas for help, saying they have not received promised support.

“IOM didn’t call. We are still waiting. Pray for us.”

“IOM are not very transparent with this situation. They say people will receive some money upon their return, but they refuse to say how much, which is odd,” says David. “Why is this information a secret?” He adds that refugees from certain countries, including Nigeria, do not appear to be entitled to any monetary assistance at all.

IOM Libya public information assistant Safa Msehli explains that reintegration assistance varies from one region to another and is “managed via different methodologies”, depending on whether countries are covered by the EU Trust Fund, which pays for the VHR programme.

David shows IRIN a series of messages from a Kenyan woman named Sarah. She was found in a rubbish collection point near the church, where she had been dumped after being abused. David and his colleagues helped her regain her strength, register with IOM, and return home to Kenya via VHR. Over the course of the past several months, David has become concerned by the increasingly desperate tone of her WhatsApp messages; initially she pleaded for prayers and then for more practical help. David says the only assistance she has received since arriving back in Kenya was transport from the airport to her destination of choice.

“They did interviews and told us to wait for their call,” she wrote in one message, referring to workers from the IOM. A few weeks later she noted: “IOM didn’t call. We are still waiting. Pray for us.” By mid-April, when Sarah said she was almost destitute, her final message read: “Oh my God, we are going to die because of hunger. May the Lord intervene to our situation.”

David says he has contacted IOM on behalf of several people who he believes are particularly vulnerable, but that each regional office attempts to shift the responsibility to another and none offer clear answers. IOM’s Msehli confirmed that reintegration is the responsibility of regional offices.

“I’m getting many messages like this,” David says. “Everyone’s complaining they haven’t been given the resettlement money and help they were promised by IOM. It’s really shameful that an international organisation would behave like this with vulnerable people who are already in such a desperate situation.”

In January, a crowd of angry returnees in Gambia attacked IOM offices with stones, dissatisfied with receiving only £50 in pocket money instead of the €3,000 they said they had expected to use to help them start new businesses.

Free ‘holiday’ flight home?

IOM has repatriated 27,051 people since January 2017, according to Msehli.

Those numbers may look good on paper, but the programme is open to widespread abuse and, in interviews with IRIN, several Libyan officials who work on illegal immigration questioned VHR’s long-term effectiveness.

“Many of the detainees here are already returnees from the repatriation programme,” the head of Tripoli’s Airport Road Detention Centre, Captain Wajidi al-Bashir al-Montassir, says, describing a cycle: “They get sent home, return to Libya, get arrested again, and then registered as new arrivals.”

He says detention centre staff have also overheard consular officials urging their nationals to use the repatriation scheme as an opportunity to get a free flight home to see their family, then simply return to Libya in the future.

“These programmes are not about human rights but about financial benefit for international organisations.”

Migrant workers from West Africa based long-term in Libya, stripped of other transport methods, have also started taking advantage of repatriation flights. Libya’s many flights to other African countries ceased with the onset of its 2011 uprising. An independent businessman chartered private flights for several years until that plane was damaged earlier this year by gunfire during clashes at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport.

“Now, we only have two options,” explains a Ghanaian security worker who gives his name only as Samuel. “Either we go to IOM via our embassy or we go to Tunis and take onward flights from there, but that’s very expensive and many workers no longer have their papers in order, so have problems at airports.”  

“We are not aware of such practices,” Msehli says, adding that “80 percent of the VHR beneficiaries are from detention centres.” However, for those incarcerated in Libya, VHR is seen as one of the few free ways out of prison in Libya. And Reverend Vincent Rajan says he frequently sees members of the congregation who have taken IOM repatriation flights back in Tripoli’s Anglican church pews after just a few months.

The EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini claimed in March this year that after successfully repatriating more than 16,000 people from detention facilities in Libya, she believed the EU could “empty them completely within maximum of a couple of months.”

But migrant detention centres, particularly in Tripoli, haven’t been empty for years, except those closed during the last year by the recently rebranded Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency, or AIIA (this reduced the number of functioning centres to 19).

Mogherini’s assertion also appears to overlook ongoing sea and land arrests by the Libyan authorities, which constantly top up numbers held in detention. In May this year (two months after Mogherini’s comment), an AIIA senior official told IRIN there were currently 5,500 detainees being held in official detention centres under its control.

Libyan officials who have addressed issues surrounding illegal immigration for years and who have wide-ranging knowledge of migration trends, characterise VHR as a largely pointless exercise. They say it fails to address Africa-wide smuggling networks that help migrants reach Libya and ignores the necessity of securing Libya’s porous southern borders.

Tom Westcott/IRIN
With insuffcient staff numbers, migrants at Tajora Detention Centre can no longer spend time outside after multiple escape attempts by migrants.

“The UN imposed the IOM deportation programme on us,” says Navy spokesman General Ayoub Ghassem. “These programmes are not about human rights but about financial benefit for international organisations,” he adds, insisting that the solution to irregular migration is not to deport migrants but rather to stop them from entering Libya in the first place. “Yes, we agree Libya is not safe, so why let migrants come here in the first place? Why not stop them in their home countries or at any other place or country along the way? And why don’t all these organisations work at the southern borders of Libya? Because that is the real place to rescue human beings.”

The EU’s total neglect of Libya’s lawless south — the point of entry for almost all migrants since the 2011 uprising — continues to frustrate and confuse AIIA officials.

“My message to the EU, the UN, and the international community is this: deporting people is useless,” says Major Mohamed Tamimi, an AIIA senior official based in Libya’s southern people-smuggling hub of Sebha.  “You deport 10 people, and 100 more cross into Libya. It’s like digging a hole in the desert, it just keeps filling up with sand.”

“The only answer to illegal immigration through Libya is to secure the borders,” he adds. “Our borders are wide open, but they can be controlled, both with security forces and with modern electronic methods.”

Detention preferable to giving up on the dream of Europe

Although many migrants have grabbed the chance of VHR as a way out of prison or Libya in general, others view it as a backwards step, preferring to stay in overcrowded Libyan detention facilities.

Towolawi, a 35-year-old Nigerian, his wife Tayro, and their two children have turned down VHR, despite having spent six months in detention. “Look, I’ve been living and working in Libya for five years and it’s been really tough, but when my kids were not able to enrol in a school here, we decided to try for Europe but we were arrested before we could even try the sea,” says Towolawi, speaking from a warehouse housing around 500 men in Tripoli’s Airport Road Detention Centre.

“And these are tough and determined people who are basically prepared to send themselves to probable death at sea to try and achieve this dream.”

Towolawi says accepting VHR would undermine all his efforts to find a better life for his family. “I’ve been kidnapped for ransom three times and, once, my wife and children were kidnapped. I’ve spent more than 30,000 Libyan dinars ($21,900); getting here, paying ransoms, and then the boat money, twice – because I paid, then the smugglers claimed I hadn’t and made me pay again.”

Tayro, housed in a separate hanger for women at the same facility, claims their home in Nigeria has become unsafe due to the proliferation of Boko Haram extremists. Christians such as herself are no longer able to freely follow their religion, she says.

“To go back home with nothing is to have wasted all this time, money, and struggle,” Towolawi says. “I don’t want to be returned home, and I don’t want to stay in Libya. I want the international organisations to help me reach Europe, where there is freedom and human rights. I’m a talented musician, so I’m sure I could make a life there, and I just want to help my family and give my children good schooling and a better life.”

Mostly viewed as economic migrants, Nigerians are not usually eligible for refugee or asylum seeker status, but Towolawi does not understand that the likelihood of his family being helped to reach Europe by international organisations is extremely slim.

“All these migrants have the same dream, and that is to reach Europe,” says Captain al-Montassir, standing in the courtyard of the Airport Road Detention Centre. “And these are tough and determined people who are basically prepared to send themselves to probable death at sea to try and achieve this dream.”


Read the other instalments: Homecoming, Evacuation, Frustration, Desperation, Deportation, Demoralised, Misery and misunderstanding part 1 and  part 2, and Overlooked

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