Trafficking on human misery: encountering plight of undoc’d migrants fleeing Libya

AA commissions investigation into how Libyan smugglers transport undocumented migrants from the restive N.African state into Europe, via Italy.

Trafficking on human misery: encountering plight of undoc'd migrants fleeing Libya


Anadolu Agency recently commissioned an investigation into how Libyan smugglers transport undocumented migrants from the restive North African state into Europe, via Italy.  Our correspondent Assed Baig posed as a migrant trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa in order to gain an insight into the smuggling network.

There are several places where boats leave from: Tripoli, Zawara and Misrata are the most popular departure points.  We chose to concentrate on trying to get a boat from Tripoli.

“Don’t worry, you will definitely get to Lampedusa, there is a boat leaving soon. It’s a sure thing,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone.  He went on tell me that there was a cargo ship due to sail shortly, and that I could buy my passage onto it, but I had to be quick as places were filling-up rapidly.

As I would learn later, this offer and the conditions of passage would change several times.  The smugglers use these tactics to ascertain their potential customer’s level of interest and sheer desperation, before reeling them in to embark on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to the Italian island.

Smuggling is big money.  Charging up to $2,000 per person, and filling up a boat to 200 people can mean that smugglers can get rich fast, with little or no concern for the people that they are sending out to sea, many of whom will meet their death before they ever see Europe.  The Libyan smugglers shrewdly employ people from other nationalities in order to entice potential customers from destitute immigrant communities.  These individuals can be Somali, Chadian or Pakistani. My smuggler’s name was Kashif.  He was from Pakistan and had been in Libya for a few years; operating his lucrative smuggling business from there. He had no need to resort to making a dangerous trip to Italy unlike the migrants.

You never get to meet the smugglers until the time of departure.  Once you are picked up by the smugglers and taken to a ‘safe house’ there is no turning back.  You have to stay in the safe house until the boat is ready to leave.

In Tripoli I met Atif, a Kashmiri who had attempted the journey to Lampedusa but failed. He was kept in a safe house for five days.  I spoke to others that had stayed longer, up to fifteen days in one case.

“The smugglers check the internet for weather reports before they set off,” Atif told me.

Whilst talking with Atif, I found out that his village in Kashmir is only an hour and a half’s drive from where my family comes from.  It was a sad discovery- and one that prompted hard reflection.  My grandfather had moved to the UK, where I was born, and Atif had been born in Kashmir, where the economic hardships had forced him to leave and try and gain passage to Europe.  What if I had been born in Kashmir- would I too be in Libya risking my life to get to Europe so I could support my family back home?

Those that captain the boats often have very little experience at sea.  Sometimes the migrants are given a discount on the price for passage for steering the boat themselves. Once on the ship the smugglers point the escapees in the direction of Lampedusa and they set sail, using substandard vessels, many with motors that run out of fuel mid-ocean.

The boats that take the Somalis to Lampedusa are cheaper to pay for, but much more dangerous.  The Syrian boats are more expensive but are bigger and ‘safer’ according to Atif.  The Syrians have more money, at least more than those from Somalia, Mali, and Niger.

 “They told me it would be a big boat, but once I saw the boat I was shocked. It was so small,” Atif told me whilst sitting in the hotel he now works in.  There are many migrants working in hotels across Tripoli. They sometimes work there to save up money to be able to afford the journey to Lampedusa.

“We got lost, and the boat began to take in water.  For three hours we wandered the sea, not knowing where we were headed,” recalls Atif.

“The Libyan coast guard then found us and we were all taken to prison,” he claims.

“They didn’t beat me but they beat the blacks badly.  It was horrible.  The women were asked for sex in return for their release,” he told me, with a troubled look on his face as he recalled what he had witnessed.

 A few days later Kashif, the smuggler, contacted me again.  I told him I still wanted to go but was uncertain about going into a safe house.  He reassured me, “You don’t have to go to the safe house if you don’t want, we’ll just let you know when the boat is leaving and you can get on it then,” he said.  It seemed too good to be true.  Kashif also repeated that it would be a cargo ship and that I would be sharing it with other people from different nationalities, mainly Syrians.

The details changed by the time we had our next conversation.

“It’s a big fishing boat, we’ve had to change some things because of the troubles in Tripoli,” he told me.  Over forty people had been killed the previous day as a militia opened fire on demonstrators.  Kashif had conveniently changed the mode of transport from a cargo ship to a fishing boat.  I was not very confident that it would be a large fishing boat.

Two days later Kashif called again.  He said “do you still want to go?” in a direct and firm manner.  I told him I did.

“Look, I don’t want to lie to you, you seem like a nice guy.  The boat is leaving in the next few days, we will pick you up, and will take you to the safe house.  You won’t be able to leave until the boat is ready to go,” he told me with an air of urgency.

“Once you are in the car there is no turning back.  Even if you don’t like the boat, you’re getting on it, these Libyans will beat you senseless and throw you on that boat, but you will not be able to turn back,” he said sternly.  He had changed all the conditions.  I told him I still wanted to go but needed a day to think about it.  He told me to think quickly as the boat was leaving soon.

Feeling anxious, I put down the phone.  I could not take anything with me on the ship- no bag, only our money; mobile phones would be taken off us and only handed back when we boarded.  There were now an over-abundance of risks to consider – first off, there was no telling how long I would be at the safe house; then there was the hazard of drowning out at sea; and most troubling of all, there was the danger of being discovered as a journalist.  The smugglers do not want to risk giving up their location of departure or safe house out of fear of getting caught.  Also, once someone has seen the smugglers faces, they do not want you turning back, they are very cautious not to get caught.

I had been interviewing people all week- perhaps someone had noticed me. If one of the smugglers or fellow migrants became suspicious of me and concluded that I was either a spy or journalist, I would probably end up dead.

What’s more, I thought, if I drowned or was murdered at sea, it would be very likely that no-one would ever find out how or where I died. Thoughts of my son without a father drifted through my mind.

 “The one sending them does not care about whether they make it or not.  He just wants his money.  He wants to see them off the shore and out of sight.  He knows the chances of the migrants making it to Lampedusa are minimal,” said 35-year-old Ashraf, who has been a fisherman for over 15 years.  He told me smuggling has increased since the fall of Gaddafi.  The country’s instability has benefited criminal gangs who are capitalising on people’s desperation.

Ashraf added that he has seen boats with migrants out at sea. “The boats are always over loaded, a boat that is meant to carry 50 people, the smugglers put on 200, maybe more.”

“It’s suicide to go on those boats, most of the people never make it,” he observed.

 The boat was due to leave the next day; I had to weigh up the risks, and decide whether to go or not.  It was impossible to resist the conclusion that the danger was simply too great.

Having edged toward a final decision, I was prompted to bitter reflection: if I was an undocumented migrant fleeing the war in Syria, or endemic poverty in Somalia or Eritrea than I would not have the option of stepping back from such risks- because anything would be better than what I had left behind.  Risking my life would have seemed a viable option, even if it meant surrendering my fate to the smugglers and the sea.

That day I went out and looked out at the shores of the Mediterranean.  The waves were smashing across the rocks relentlessly.  How could a boat even leave under these conditions?  Yet as bad as they were, I knew from my experiences so far that many poor and desperate people would attempt the crossing, perhaps in even worse weather, and that some unscrupulous trafficker would make money out of it.

In the end the decision was made for me.

Anadolu Agency thought the risk and danger were far too high for me to go with the smugglers. There would be no way of knowing where I was, where I was being kept, when I was leaving and if I would make it.  Taking all these factors into account, the agency pulled me out due to safety concerns.  We do not know what happened to the boat that was scheduled to leave Tripoli.  We are not sure if they made it.

 “I’ve seen them floating out in the water, I’ve brought up bodies in my fishing nets,” Cruz, a fisherman in Tripoli, told me as I stared out at the sea, knowing that I would remain on solid ground for the rest of my time in Libya.

“I have seen bodies out at sea, men, women, and children,” he added, before leaving me with my thoughts.

Read the original article published in Anadolu Agency on 7 December 2013

Undocumented migrants face tough time inside Libya’s detention system

Undocumented migrants face tough time inside Libya's detention systemTRIPOLI

Since the fall of Gadhafi, African migrants mainly from Chad, Niger and Mali have been flocking to Libya hoping to get work or a boat to Italy. AA reporter Assed Baig goes to detention centres in Tripoli to meet some of them.

Armed men guard the entrance of the zoo in Tripoli, some are dressed in military fatigues, whilst others stand around smoking. Beyond the windy road lies a ‘detention centre’ run by a former militia that now works under the Interior Ministry. The area around the gates of the zoo still has some of its former lustre, designed to attract Libyans to its once scenic grounds.
The militia were initially charged with zookeeping, but as the problems in Libya multiplied, so have their responsibilities. They are now charged with dealing with migrants and comb the streets of Tripoli looking for migrants without valid visas or documentation.

Commander Said Gars Alaha sits on an old sofa placed in the shade, outside the door to the facility. A small table in front of him, he has a file and an empty cup sitting next to it. Inside, migrants are lined up against the wall. Uniformed men wearing medical facemasks inspect any documentation the migrants may have whilst asking them questions. Gars Alaha wears a blue uniform with military style black boots. He has a neatly kept short grey beard and welcomes us warmly. He is keen to point out that this is a processing facility and that migrants are not kept here for more than 72 hours.

“This is not a prison”, he points out to me.

None of the guards inside seem to be carrying guns. He tells me that he is upset at foreign journalists twisting the story and making it seem like migrants are being kept with animals.

“I am happy for you to look around, as long as you tell the truth,” says Alaha.

There are various pick-up trucks and police cars parked around the grounds, including a minibus with caged windows. I am told that this is for transporting migrants to another facility.

Inside, the migrants line up, most are Black Africans. Abdullah, the guard, inspects their passports. None of the men have a valid entry stamp. Some do not have passports. 27-year-old Fafuna Musa from Mali, tells me that he came to Libyato feed his family, “I just want to earn money and go home to my family”. This is a common story told here. Migrants are unlikely to admit that they will attempt to journey further toItaly. Most end up working in Libya trying to earn money to feed themselves and their families back home. Some save up to take the dangerous journey by boat to Italy. During Gadhafi’s regime numbers of African migrants from Libya were stemmed as Gaddafi asked for money from European countries to prevent a ‘Black Europe’. Since his fall the levels have increase as lack of security allows smugglers more freedom to operate.

The migrants look tired. Their clothes are ripped and some do not have any shoes. Most have travelled the desert to get to Libya, a journey that can take up to a month depending on where they are coming from. Some have travelled from as far-a-field as Nigeria.

There is dust and dirt all over their clothes. Some of these men work on construction sites. The youngest is 18 years old.

Fafuna looks over 50 but tells me he is only 27. I question him further, and he responds by saying, “Anna miskeen,” meaning “I’m poor” in Arabic. The guard says the story is always the same and replies, “ I know that all of you are ‘miskeen’.”

Some of the migrants are cut and are bleeding. The guard is quick to tell me that the wounds were caused when the migrants ran from the police. I ask the migrants to make sure that this is true; they confirm the guard’s version of events.

Badara is another detainee, he works in a restaurant and is using his mobile phone to call his boss. He says that his boss has his paperwork and passes the phone over to the guard so that he can speak to the restaurant owner. A look of desperation runs across his face as he hopes that his boss will be able to secure his release. Many businesses in Libya rely on migrant labour. It is cheap and as in countless other countries Libyan’s sometimes do not want to do the jobs that migrants are prepared to do.

I am led through the facility and I spot some blood on the floor. Again Abdullah is quick to point out to me where the blood has come from. They have come very aware of the negative publicity that this facility has received recently.

Outside in the courtyard Egyptians and Tunisians are queuing at a door to a small room. Their blood will be tested for any diseases, Abdullah tells me, specifically for HIV and Hepatitis.

We are then taken to one of the main detention rooms. The guard signals for the men to stand up and come to the front. I stop him; I don’t want orchestrated pictures for the benefit of the media. He opens the padlock to the iron barred room. I take pictures of young men as they sit on the floor of the room.

There are two mats on the floor and I count 12 detainees. My guide points out to me that they have two air-conditioned rooms, a toilet and bottled drinking water, but this room is not particularly clean. The men are ushered out and back through to the main hall leading to the entrance, where the get into a van to be taken to another detention facility to which we do not have access. The commander assures me that those that do not have valid visas, documentation or passports will be repatriated to their countries of origin.

Earlier this year Amnesty International said that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants were being held in ‘deplorable conditions’ in Libya. The human rights organisation visited seven “holding centres” in April and May this year. Amnesty international said they found “evidence of ill-treatment, in some cases amounting to torture”. The organisation also said that many foreign nationals were being held in Libya and were subjected to “arbitrary arrests and held for long periods in deplorable conditions at immigration detention facilities described by the Libyan authorities as “holding centres”, with no immediate prospect of release or redress in sight.”

We have had no problem accessing this facility, but there are others detention centres and prisons that we do not have access to. We spoke to a former prisoner of a facility in Khums to the east of Tripoli. He alleged that routine beatings and sexual assault were a common practice. One detainee told Anadolu, on condition of anonymity, that women were forced to have sex with guards in exchange for their release.

However, in this detention centre the guards and commander are keen to point out what they consider to be good treatment of the detainees. We did not see any of the guards shout or use force whilst we were there.

“They eat what we eat,” Gars tells me, referring to the sandwiches and they ate. “We have women to take care of and check the women. We do not treat people badly,” he adds.

We also visited a detention facility in Sabha, the largest city in the south of the country and usually the first city that migrants arrive in when enteringLibya. Although we were allowed on to the facility, we were not permitted to see where the detainees were being kept. According to the Deputy Commander Al-Medani Muhammed Al-Zarouq there are 600 undocumented migrants being kept at the facility. A local resident of the city who has seen the facilities told me they were very dirty and difficult to enter because of the smell. This could be why I was refused entry to see the migrant’s living conditions, 600 people enclosed in a small building, not allowed to leave, in the hot conditions of Libya, is bound to result in terrible conditions. There was no mention of air-conditioning at the Sabha facility.

I was told that the migrants are divided into nationalities and that the majority of are from Niger, Chad and Mali.

“We cannot send some migrants back to their countries, like those from Somalia and Eriteria, as they are refugees,” says Al-Zarouq.

The undocumented migrants from Niger are sent back to their country in trucks, paid for by the interior ministry he tells me. I am shown the kitchen of the facility, but am not permitted to take any pictures or speak to the migrants working there. It seems clean. There are crates full of freshly cooked packed lunches. Al-Zarouq opens one for me, pointing out that he, the guards, and the detainees all eat the same food. Each little box has macaroni and a piece of chicken in it, and I can still see the steam rising from the food. The rest of the facility seems to be undergoing some renovation. There are two armed guards standing around, the majority of whom are unarmed.

There are many detention centres and prisons spread across Libya. The number of detainees is unknown at the moment as numbers fluctuate as people are released, repatriated or transferred to other facilities. Undocumented migrants that are captured face a long detention, repatriation and in some cases physical abuse. The future of Libya’s prisons and detention centres is uncertain until the government manages to bring everything under control and conform to international standards of transparency and access.

As I leave the detention centre in Tripoli I can see some of the migrants praying their noon prayer. They sit on the prayer mats long after their Libyan counterparts have finished praying. Their hands are raised in supplication towards the sky. Their heads tipped down like wilted flowers, they pray for relief, for a way out of this detention centre, for their loved ones at home, and for a miracle.