Hot topics | Coronavirus pandemic

Migrants are being targeted and beaten in Libyan detention: Migrators are subjected to abuse in the country's detainee camps

Migrants are being targeted and beaten in Libyan detention: Migrators are subjected to abuse in the country's detainee camps

Osman Tour was crying as he called his brother's cellphone number from the pain of repeated beatings and torture.

Tour stated in that August 2017 interview that he was in Libya and that his prison is in prison. If you dont pay 2,500 dinars in 24 hours, they will kill me, he added.

Tours family transferred the roughly $550 requested to secure his release from a government detention center in Libya within days. Tour was not let go, he was instead sold to a trafficker and kept in solitary confinement for four more years.

Tour is one of tens of thousands of migrants who have suffered torture, sexual violence, and extortion at the hands of guards in Libya, a major hub for migrants fleeing poverty and wars on the continent and hoping for reunification in Europe.

The 25-year-old Guinean, along with two dozen other migrants, spoke to The Associated Press aboard the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel run by Doctors without Borders in the Mediterranean off Libya, with the ship's crew. Most of them had been held in trafficking warehouses and government detention centers in western Libya during the last four years.

They were among 60 people who fled Libya on Sept. 19 in two unsuitable boats, but were rescued a day later by the Geo Barents. The Associated Press also received testimony from many of the other individuals interviewed by the aid group, which is better known by its French acronym MSF.

Since 2015, the Europische Union has sent 455 million euros to Libya, largely sourced through U.N. agencies and aimed at beefing up Libyas coast guard, strengthening its southern border, and improving conditions for migrants.

According to a 2019 AP investigation, however, huge sums have been diverted to networks of militiamen and traffickers who exploit migrants. Coast guard officers are also involved, turning migrants seized at sea to detention centers under agreements with militias or demanding payoffs to let others go.

The practice continues unabated, and U.N.-commissioned investigators said in a 32-page report last week that "policies intended to push migrants back to Libya to keep them away from European shores ultimately lead to abuses," including possible crimes against humanity.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe have made their way through Libya, where a lucrative trafficking business has flourished in neo-Gouvernmental Libya. The country has long been divided between two rival administrations in the east and west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

According to the Associated Press, the migrants, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa, were beat and tortured by detention center guards, before being paid money from their relatives in exchange for their freedom. Their bodies bore traces of old and recent trauma, as well as bullet and knife wounds on their backs, legs, arms, and faces.

On paper, the detention facilities are run by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, which is headed by Libya's interim government and the Interior Ministry, who took control earlier this year under U.N. auspices to conduct national elections by end of the year. According to migrants and the U.N. investigators, notable militias are still under control on the ground.

According to the U.N. report, "Migrants are detained for indefinite periods without an opportunity to have the legality of their detention reviewed, and the only practical means of escape is by paying large sums of money to guards or engaging in forced labor or sexual favors inside or outside the detainee's cells."

Spokespeople for Libyas government, the Interior Ministry, or the directorate or coast guard did not answer telephone calls or reply to messages seeking comment.

Tour, the youngest of seven siblings abandoned by their father, said that as an adolescent he watched other young people from his small Guinean town of Kindia make it to Europe and help their families out of poverty.

He began his own attempt in March 2015, taking odd jobs to assist him pay for the trip. He stated that traffickers held him captive for months twice in Niger and Algeria, before he crossed into Libya in April 2017, when a group of trafficking syndicates took him to Libya.

Tour, who had just arrived from Libya, was intercepted by the coast guard and escorted back to Tripoli four months later. He and other migrants attempted to flee at the port, but were caught by security forces and taken to the al-Nasr Martyrs detention center in Zawiya.

Thats when the torture began. He described how guards would hang them upside down and whip their bare feet. At times, other migrants were forced or compelled to participate in the violence, or given incentives.

A migrant from Ghana refused to beat us, but there was a Cameroonian who was really cruel, Tour said.

Six guards approached him during his second week in prison. One hit him hard on the right side of his face. The rest kicked and beat him. He was then given a cellphone and told to call his family.

Ten others in the cell were forced to do the same. In the next few days, three were arrested by the guards. He said he doesn't know what has happened to them.

The money sent by captives' relatives was typically transferred via Western Union or an informal system of personal accounts to a trafficker in coordination with the guards. In some cases, such as Tours, families sent money to the detained migrant and guards took them to withdraw it.

Tour was taken from his cell phone three days after the phone call. He thought he would be free to go. Instead, the guards sold him to a Zawiya trafficker. He spent the next four years enslaved, working in the traffickers warehouse.

He said his luck changed in September when the trafficker's wife took pity on him and persuaded her husband to release him, but his fortunes had changed. Within days he was on a small inflatable boat with 55 other people attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

The boat, overloaded, didn't make it to the top. Those onboard were rescued by the Geo Barents 48 nautical miles off Libyas coast. They were then taken to Sicily, where italy's authorities allowed the rescue ship to dock on Sept. 27 and allowed them to seek asylum. If their returns are denied, they may still be returned to their home countries.

Tour and other migrants claimed that in addition to plain cruelty, there was racism behind their abuse in Libya. The U.N. report concluded the same that Black sub-Saharan Africans were more likely to be subjected to harsher treatment than others.

Libya isnt a safe place for Black Africans, Tour said.

The point of arrival at one of Libya's ports was the first opportunity for Libyan security forces to solicit money from migrants trying to reach Europe.

For some, particularly Arab migrants, the ordeal ended there without detention, as long as they paid. Waleed, a Tunisian, told the Associated Press he bribed guards four times at the Tripoli port and walked free. Three more times, he was taken to detention centers, where a method to get enough money for the guards was found and omitted.

Mohammed, a Moroccan, said he was released at port in 2020 by handing over 3,000 dinars ($660). Both men gave only their first names out of fear for the safety of family members still inside Libya.

According to U.N. statistics, the Libyan coast guard, which is trained and equipped by the European Union, has intercepted some 87,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea since 2016, including about 26,300 so far this year. But according to the U.N. migration agency, only about 10,000 people are in detention centers, raising worries that many are being held in the hands of criminal organizations and traffickers, and that others are dead.

Not all people have the funds to bribe. Mohammed Salah, a 20-year-old migrant from the Ivory Coast, told the Associated Press that he was intercepted and returned to Libya in January 2020. He didnt have the 3,000 dinars ($660) he demanded for his freedom.

After arguing about the bribe, he was beaten at the police station and suffered a broken leg. Detention center guards then handed him over to a trafficker, who enslaved him for over .

Valentin Najang of Cameroon was detained in the Zawiya detention center after being captured early last month. The 18-year-old told the Associated Press that the guards beat him and other migrants repeatedly with sticks and plastic tubing. He once witnessed two guards beat a young Mauritius immigrant unconscious. His family paid 500,000 Cameroonian francs (over $880) for his release a week after his detention.

The question of who should be held accountable for the abuses against migrants remains at the heart of the matter. The U.N. report did not name suspects, stating further investigation is needed to determine who was culpable.

But migrants and others in Libya say the answer is simple: its the militias and warlords who have risen to be powerful government figures in many areas.

Zawiya, where the al-Nasr Martyrs detention center is located, is controlled by the Nasr Maryrian militia, which have "the final say on all the towns security and military matters," according to a former senior official at the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Mohammed Kachlaf is the leader of the militia, which was sanctioned in 2018 by the United Nations Security Council, who called his organization one of Libyas leading players in the field of migrant smuggling and exploitation of migrants.

Abdel-Rahman Milad, who was also arrested by the United Nations Security Council in 2018 for human trafficking, is the coast guard unit in Zawiya. Milad and other coast guard members are directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms, according to experts at the United Nations. Milad has denied any links to human smuggling.

And Tripolis Abu Salim neighborhood, where a detention facility with the same name is located, is controlled by splinter militia headed by Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli. Though Amnesty International has accused him of war crimes and other serious rights violations, he was appointed this year as the head of the government's so-called Stability Support Authority with even bigger arrest powers.

It is a well-connected mafia with influence in every corner of the government, the former Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration official stated.

_________

Ahmed Hatem, an AP video journalist, is reporting from aboard the Geo Barents.

You may also like: