Many of those who seek refuge in Europe find themselves stranded in a Libya at war with itself. Women and daughters await the results of the UN’s resettlement lottery on mattresses amid the bombs. While husbands and sons face forced conscription.
After waking up and hugging her daughter, Naima crosses the street and walks the hundred metres to reach the UNHCR Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) where she enquires about her fate. She has done the same every day since she fled from her neighbourhood, Qasr bin Ghashir, which has been the under attack since the war came to Tripoli. Since then she has had no place to stay and lives on the street. Naima’s daughter was born six days after Khalifa Haftar’s assault on the Libyan capital began. Two months ago, her husband was kidnapped by an armed militia group. The first time that he was kidnapped, he was taken to Sabha, around 640 km south of Tripoli, where he was forced to work for an armed group until his family in Sudan paid to release him. Naima has not heard from him since he was taken for the second time. She and her six-month-old daughter are left to fend for themselves like many other families on the streets. All of whom have found no place in either UN or Libyan-run facilities.
Women queue daily outside the GDF, hoping to be on the list of those to be evacuated. They wave their registration papers, all bearing the UNHCR stamp. Some have been waiting for six months, others for two years. It were as though they were anticipating the result of a lottery, eagerly clutching their tickets. The grand prize is a plane ride with UNHCR, the only way to leave Libya.
“I'm scared because I know there is no place for us to go.” Naima says: “I go to the UNHCR office every day, I tell them that I need help, and I do the same with the police and the same with the International Office for Migration. I want to know if my husband is in a detention centre. I hope he is alive in detention, rather than having died after being forced to fight.” She cradles her little girl, while glancing over at a heavily pregnant woman sat alone close to her. “We weep constantly. We know that nobody will help us. Please help us.”
At the end of April, Nafisa Sayed Musa and her son Abdallah also fled from Qasr bin Ghashir in fear of Haftar’s bombs. Their story has much in common with how dozens of others play out, war, escape, death, hope of a better life, and then torture, ransoms, prison. They fled together to Libya after their village in Darfur was burned down in a Janjaweed attack, in which Nafisa’s husband and two other sons kidnapped. Twenty-seven-year-old Tayib said: “We moved from one city to another and the wars followed us.” He was kidnapped and tortured for two months in Libya by a group that demanded money for his release. The 44-year-old Nafisa said other Darfuri migrants contributed to her son’s ransom. “Some people gave 20 dinars, while others gave 50, until we collected the amount they wanted. Other people from Darfur knew I didn’t have money enough to pay, and he is the only child I have left.”
When he tells his story Abdallah, he remains sullen. “I lost my smile for ever. I survived the fire in my village because when my father and my brothers died. I was working in the fields even though I was just a child. There is nothing left. From either our village, or our family.” Abdallah was abducted by an armed militia in Umm al-Aranib and from there transferred to Sabha, in southwestern Libya. After months of torture his skin now resembles a map of violence. He shows the marks of the branding irons that burned his back and arms from his time in Bani Walid, and the scars of where cigarettes were stubbed out on him during his stay in an illegal detention centre in Tripoli. “
They told me that if you have no money, call your family and get them sent some. You decide between paying, working or fighting. Those who try to rebel die. I've seen so many people dying around me. Fortunately, the other guys from Darfur helped my mother to pay to release me. But I won’t forget what I’ve witnessed in those places of detention.” After paying the ransom, Abdallah and his mother arrived in Tripoli, knocked on the door of the UNHCR office and registered themselves for international protection. Then they found a shelter in a Sudanese family in Qasr bin Ghashir. A month later the war began. Nafisa looks at her son and says, “I have only one dream, a dignified life. I dream of Europe for my son. I imagine seeing him working and smiling, just that.”
After escaping from their neighbourhood, which was right on the frontline, Nafisa and Abdallah were housed in a Libyan Red Crescent-run school in downtown Tripoli with sixty other families. There was little food, little help, and what little water there was to be found was dirty. But at least had a roof over the head, and a bathroom. A few weeks later the owner of the building asked the Libyan Red Crescent to leave the school because of concerns raised by local residents, who thought the migrants were depriving Libyan displaced people of the aid of humanitarian organisations.
So, since then, those families have been turned out onto the street. Some have mattresses, others do not. And others still shelter beneath the overpass. This is where Nafisa and Abdullah can be found, sleeping there with many single women and 15 children, some of them are new-born babies.
Asad al-Jafir, a Libyan Red Crescent employee, worked to support families in the city centre. He continues to help them now they are on the streets, where the situation has become unsustainable. He says: “The men risk being kidnapped, and forced to fight by militias. The women risk being taken away and sexually abused.” He then gestures towards the dirty mattresses on the ground, and the buckets of dirty water which serve as a poor substitute for a bathroom. Sometimes people go to the mosque so that at least the children can wash. Al-Jafir says he has been appealing to the UN for months, without receiving a reply.
“The UN bears a large responsibility for this. You see them on television, shouting that they don’t want to see more people die at sea. I wonder what they think the difference is between seeing them die at sea and letting them die on the streets. Words like “human rights” fill their mouths. Here are the humans, so where are the rights?”
The UNHCR registration office is just across the street. Families sleep nearby to be able to ask for information, to request help, and to plead to be evacuated.
The ongoing ferocity of the nearby conflict, accompanied by the nightly airstrikes, leaves everyone who seeks shelter in the neighbourhood on edge. Al-Jafir says that in Tripoli nowhere is safe from shelling. “These people have decided to live here because there is a military base just 50 metres away and they think it serves as good protection from the abuses of armed militias of the area, but the military bases are the first to be targeted by Haftar. Imagine being a single woman here, with a kidnapped husband and a six-year-old daughter who has known nothing but the streets.”
During the long months of violence in Tripoli, humanitarian organisations have repeatedly warned about the around 6,000 migrants and refugees who are being held in detention centres along the frontline. The UNHCR reported that two people were injured in an airstrike on 8 May near a migrant detention centre, which hosts more than 500 people. In late April conflicting reports emerged that militia had opened fire in another Tripoli facility, Qasr bin Ghashir. The most serious attack, however, took place at the Tajura detention facility on 2 July. At 11.30 in the morning an airstrike hit the facility where according to the UNHCR 600 people were imprisoned. At least 53 people were killed and 130 were wounded in the attack.
In February 2017 the Italian government, under the premiership of Paolo Gentiloni, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Libyan government of Fayez al-Sarraj. Its aimed to provide the Libyan coastguard with training, and to finance detention centres in order to, according to Article 2 of the memorandum, 'improve conditions and provide for medical supplies and equipment'. This agreement will be automatically renewed on 3 November, however, no lasting European strategy on migration has been implemented amid a surge in support for populist and far-right political movements across the continent. Libya, meanwhile, is counting the death toll of its fourth civil war in eight years, with 1,100 dead, 5,800 injured and 120,000 displaced. Many migrants number among the dead, caught in the crossfire of a country at war.
Oxfam recently published a memo highlighting the costs of Memorandum of Understanding in recent years. Paolo Pezzati, policy advisor on the migration crisis for Oxfam Italia, said: “We have collected terrible testimonies of torture, rape, murder taking place in Libyan detention camps. The agreement that Italian government signed with Libya has in fact allowed these unreported violations to take place and therefore it should not be just be renewed.” Despite the inhuman conditions endured by migrants in Libya, successive Italian governments have continued to finance interventions in the country. This has included the training of local personnel in official detention centres and the supply of land and naval vehicles to the coastguard and the Libyan authorities. The cost of this support has increased year on year reaching a total of over €150 million. No one knows exactly how much money has left European shores for Tripoli, nor how many seek refuge via the conflict in Libya.
Matteo Orfini, member of the Italian parliament for the Democratic Party, has called for an inquiry into how this money has been used. “Several journalistic inquiries have shown the existence of relations that are anything but transparent between Italy and Libya. The hypothesis that negotiations have taken place between the state apparatus and human smugglers is seemingly true. But until now there has been no official response capable of dispelling the doubts. The most appropriate instrument to investigate what is happening between Italy and Libya is a parliamentary inquiry.”
The Memorandum of Understanding stated that funds were also to be used to improve the conditions in the migrant detention centre and to provide local personnel with human rights training. During this time UN agencies should have been able to evacuate refugees from Libya and relocate them elsewhere. The numbers, however, tell a different story. Resettlements from Libya only began at the end of 2017 and since just 2,000 have been relocated per year. As European countries have been unwilling to accept migrants, UNHCR claims that it has been forced to prioritise the most vulnerable; women, unaccompanied minors, and families. Many migrants claim that local UN staff ask for bribes to accelerate the evacuation process, which also hinders resettlement. What is certain is that despite the increased flow of funding from Europe, the living conditions of migrants in detention centres remains dire, and are possibly worse than three years ago.
Muhammad, who fled from Ghana, was among those detained in Tajura. He survived the bombing, he escaped and evaded being kidnapped by militias who would have forced him to fight. Three weeks ago, he attempted to make the crossing to Europe once again, but the Libyan Coastguard picked him and returned him to detention, this time in a camp in Triq al-Sikka. The facility is one of the centres nominally managed by the Libyan Ministry of the Interior. But as the line between legality and lawlessness in Libya is blurred, it is difficult to say exactly how many centres are in fact under government control rather than in the hands of armed militias. There are dozens of facilities which are directly managed by the smugglers and militias, where migrants describe having suffered torture, blackmail, extortion, abuses.
The Triq al-Sikka detention centre houses about 300 people. Almost all are kept in the men's section, which is little more than a cage. To enter one must past through two padlocked gates to pass through, and navigated the wire meshes which litter the compound. A Moroccan man stands up and says, welcome to hell. The detainees share six bathrooms, three of which are clogged. The sick lie on the ground untended to. Among them sits an invalid boy who has lost the use of his legs. At the bottom of the room someone prays, others lay stretched out on filthy mattresses. The sound of shelling can be heard in the distance as the frontline is just seven kilometres away.
Six months ago, the Sarraj government appointed Colonel Mabrouk Abdulhafid as the new director of Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), and tasked him with reforming the institution. Abdulhafid knows that combat human smuggling in Libya means fighting against powerful tribes and clans especially in some areas of the country beyond the government’s reach. “We believe that in the nine centres under our formal control there are more or less 6,000 people, but that the total number of illegal immigrants in Libya is 700,000,” he says. “There are centres outside our control, both east and west of the country. We have already closed three centres, including that of al-Kararim in Misrata and those of Tajura, after the bombing. They were actually in the hands of armed groups. We want to close the one at Zawiya next (45 km west of Tripoli). It will be the most difficult because it is an area where many different economic interests overlap.”
Muhammad experienced those abuses for months, both in legal and illegal detention centres, on the southern border, in the desert and on the coast. He also suffered abuses in Tajura, where he says the militia had free reign. “The guards were either threatened or willingly cooperated with the militias. Many times, the night watchmen opened the doors to the militiamen who carried away groups of migrants to reduce them to slaves, or to ransom them back to their families.” Today Muhammad still wears the clothes that he wore on the night he was captured by the coastguard. Salt residue remains on his trousers and sweater. Three weeks have passed since he lost his shoes at sea. He has been barefoot ever since. He has the eyes of a person who survived death twice, but only just. They burn with fear, the desire to be free, with the will to survive, and with the memory of his wife and his children.
“The last time we spoke was the night I tried to cross the Mediterranean. When the coastguard brought me here, the soldiers took the little money I had left and my phone. My wife does not know where I am, or whether I am alive or dead.”