Thousands of African Refugees Get Trapped in Hell on the Way to Europe

About 6,000 refugees jailed in Libya, abandoned or sold to traffickers, and the international community supports the regimes that keep it going

Refugees in a detention center in Libya, September 2019.

LIBYA – On August 23, the manager of the Zawiya refugee detention center in Libya decided to bring some of his friends into the compound. The jail manager, Osama, is a drug addict with a temper and tends to take out his frustrations on the prisoners.

The “friends” he brought into the detention facility are his drug suppliers, who also traffic human beings. They come from time to time to check out the new merchandise – refugees caught at sea after they tried to flee Libya and reach the shores of Italy or Greece.

Osama brought them into the hangar of “new” refugees from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, who had arrived the week before. These refugees are not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or with any other organization. No one is responsible for their welfare. It’s easy to make them disappear.

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According to Doctors Without Borders, there are some 6,000 refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centers (The UN identified 5,378 in May). After numerous reports about their condition, a number of small operations were launched to relocate the imprisoned refugees. Some were evacuated to Niger, where they were meant to wait for resettlement, but evacuations stopped because no European country was willing to accept them.

Rescued migrants rest near the city of Khoms, Libya, August 27, 2019.
Hazem Ahmed/AP

In April, after a wave of demonstrations in the Libyan detention center, representatives of the refugees reinstated the evacuations and evacuated another 163 to Niger. In June, another 149 were removed from Zawiya and Zintan and taken to Italy. But new refugees are amassing in these detention camps, and their exact numbers remain unknown.

As Osama’s friends looked over the new arrivals, they began to point at people and say, “We want him, and him, and her.” Within minutes, those chosen were put in ambulances and told that they were being moved to another facility. Realizing that they were being sold, the women began screaming, and “veteran” refugees – Eritreans from neighboring cells - came out to help them. That’s when Osama began to shoot. The women, for now, were saved from being sold and raped. But 20 men disappeared that night, and to this day no one knows where they are.

A video taken by one of the prisoners was widely disseminated online. Once again, there was pressure on UN agencies to intervene, but the agency is limited in its capabilities in Libya, and its local agents are fearful of camp management.

Refugees have asked to be registered with UNHCR, to have some semblance of protection, but the process is accompanied by long delays. Unregistered prisoners are locked in a closed cell and don’t see the light of day. They are abused and asked to pay ransom.

Some prisoners try to pay for their freedom, but once Osama releases them, they are ambushed by his friends who kidnap them and sell them to other traffickers. A few months ago a group of prisoners broke down their cell door and fled. The jailers shot at them, and one refugee was killed.

Prisoners protest outside Zintan prison in Libya, September 2019.

“I’m really doing everything I can,” Walid, a member of the UNCHR delegations in Libya, told the refugees. “But what can I do when your prison head is my cousin? Osama is a nice guy, he’s really trying.”

At the Gharyan detention center, prisoners described a similar situation: “The delegation members were Libyans,” said former prisoner Tesfay (the prisoners’ names have been changed). “One of them was from the same town as the prison head. As far as he is concerned, he would rather the refugees stayed in Libya because the system gets funding from the EU and his community profits from it.”

A combination of circumstance and bad luck led the Gharyan prisoners to an even worse fate. When General Khalifa Hafatr’s army began advancing on the capital this year, as part of the ongoing civil war with the General National Congress in Tripoli, the prison found itself in the line of fire. The prison head and guards fled, leaving hundreds of prisoners to fend for themselves in the middle of the desert, without food or clean water.

“We were left a week without food,” Tesfay says. “People died.” It took a while for a mission from Doctors Without Borders to get to the prison. The prisoners made contact with the organization using a telephone that one of the prisoners was hiding, but it took a week to get to them.

“One day, after a month in the abandoned prison, they told us that they are taking us to a UN facility in Tripoli,” the former prisoner said. “The sick were taken to a hospital, and we were thrown into the street with 450 dinars each. ‘Manage,’ they said. And that’s how we found ourselves homeless.”

Sudanese refugees wait to be deported at LIbya's Benina Airport, August 8, 2019.
Esam Omran al-Fetori / Reuters

Doctors Without Borders tried to keep the sick people in the hospital, but eventually they, too, were thrown into the street. “We’re supposedly free, but we have no way to obtain food or medicine,” said Tesfay. Now they are living in an abandoned building in a Tripoli suburb. Although it is not fit for human habitation, they must pay rent to a neighbor who owns it. They get the money from refugees abroad, but those funds could cease at any time. “It would have been better to stay in prison,” Tesfay concludes. “Here too we’re afraid that gangs of human traffickers will snatch us.”

For years, Libya has been a waystation for refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and other African countries en route to Europe. The rickety and crowded boats they travel on are often stranded or even sink at sea. Italy forbids rescuing refugees at sea, and rescuers have been accused of human trafficking. Since 2017, the EU has been providing funds and sophisticated means to the Libyan Coast Guard so that fleeing refugees will be caught and returned to Libya. Those who are returned are sent to dangerous detention centers.

Last April, incarcerated refugees began demonstrating in the detention facilities and using concealed phones to distribute videos and photos illustrating their conditions. At Qasr bin Ghashir, Haftar’s militias raided the prison and shot prisoners. They were transferred to other jails and continued to document their condition.

In June, Haaretz published testimony from the facilities: 22 inmates at Zintan prison had died of tuberculosis within six months, and more than 700 people were being held in one room. Since then, to avenge the media exposure, the prison head has moved them to small, cramped rooms where there is no space to lie down. Water was withheld and they were forced to either steal it or drink sewage. Inmates who lost their sanity were bound hand and foot.

The food supply to these facilities is irregular. At Zawiya, it’s a handful of pasta per person per day, a donation from a local nonprofit organization. “After we filmed their effort to sell the women, they punished us with fasting,” says Jamal, a prisoner. “Yesterday we didn’t eat anything.”

Kidane, a prisoner who described his struggle to Haaretz three months ago from his cell in Zintan prison, now sounds a lot more desperate. “I’m tired already,” he says. “This situation continues and there’s no change. I’m hungry, I’m sick, I’m depressed and I don’t see any future for myself.”