A look into the lives of undocumented migrants in Libya

Anadolu Agency investigates undocumented migrants in Libya

A look into the lives of undocumented migrants in Libya


Before the uprising that ousted Libya’s long-time strongman Muammar Qaddafi, there were about one million black Africans living and working in Libya. However, during the conflict the situation deteriorated and forced many to flee the country. At the time international media outlets and human rights organisations reported cases of human rights violations against black Africans.

Rebel groups battling to topple Qaddafi have accused black Africans of supporting the regime and fighting as mercenaries for the late Libyan leader. Black Africans were not always fighting for Qaddafi while some were forced to fight, and others were wrongfully accused and ended up being imprisoned or killed at the hands of some rebel groups.

Some sub-Saharan Africans managed to leave the country during the conflict, but since the fall of the regime and a perceived change in conditions, many black Africans are now returning to Libya.

Amongst Libyans there are mixed feelings. Many hold discriminatory opinions of Africans. One business owner told me that he thought black Africans were dirty and unclean by saying, “they don’t like clean places, when I gave them a clean place to stay they made it dirty.”

Even amongst the most liberal and open-minded Libyans, discriminatory opinions are prevalent. It is a common occurrence to talk about the subject of black Africans with reference to their “differences” or how some Libyans feel that they are now like a minority in their own country in the face of immigration.

The racism these migrant workers face is only one of the horrors they encounter along the journey they take to support their families back home.

Libya has seen an increase of undocumented migrants trying to find work and some trying to reach Europe by boat. Migrants are put into different categories: regular and irregular migrants.

Regular migrants have visas and pass through official border entry posts. Irregular migrants tend to be undocumented and have no valid visa to be inside the country.

Then there are refugees and asylum seekers who may or may not come into the country through official border entries. The numbers of irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are unknown at the moment.

The issue came to international attention when more than 360 migrants drowned in October this year trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy has asked for help from other European countries as the island of Lampedusa already has thousands of migrants at its facilities and is running over capacity.

– Waiting under bridge for work

We are waiting with a group of black Africans under a bridge in the residential neighborhood in Gargaresh in Tripoli. Cars speed past throwing dust up into the air. Their wheels sometimes spin on the dirt as they stop and then move off as the occupants look for manual labourers.

The men standing and waiting here sheltering from the sun are from all over Africa looking for work. Many of them do not have entry stamps on their passports, and some have no documents at all. They are all here to work, earn money, send it home, or save enough to pay smugglers for a long and perilous journey on a rickety boat to Italy.

Everyday John from Nigeria stands under this bridge seeking a daily job. Migrants crowd around the cars that stop, peering through the windows, as some get in and are driven away. They find work on construction sites, in homes, shops, restaurants and anywhere else they can. There is no job security here, no guaranteed pay, no minimum wage and no rights for workers. There is also another fear: the men are always looking out for the police.

There are limited police around as Libya is still in transition and the police force is not very visible or discernible from the many militias littering the country. When the police show up, these men run.

The fear is always palatable. If they are detained, it could mean they are repatriated to their home countries, but not before going through a detention centre. The detention centres are dreaded amongst these migrant workers given rumours of widespread abuse. Regardless of the challenges, all these men stand here every day indefatigably.

These men have come from Nigeria, Chad, Gambia, Mali and elsewhere. They confide in me and tell me of the lack of security. Just last week some Libyans mugged a few Nigerians.

“At night it is not safe for us here, many people have been mugged. They (Libyans) take our phones and money,” said James from Nigeria. It’s a voice of desperation. They are not the only ones who tell me about crimes committed against them, this seems a common story amongst migrants. I was told not to go out from my hotel after dark.

People have become accustomed to daily gunfire in Tripoli. Everyone seems to have a gun as no one feel safe without one, but the migrants do not have guns and there is no protection for their rights or an no one to ensure their safety.

“We are always worried, the situation is very bad at the moment,” says 24-year-old John.

His friends crowd around him as he talks to me and nod their heads in agreement. John smiles as he talks. Even when describing the most difficult aspects of his hard life here, he is smiling, speaking in English whilst gesticulating while explaining some of their challenges.

Migrants usually rent rooms or small kiosks and often share and live in over-crowded accommodations. It costs about 200 dinars ($150) a month that can sometimes mean half their salary so they share one room.

In another location I am given access to a room migrants’ employer provided them stay in. It is small; they can only sleep at the sides where they have thin mattresses laid out upon a raised platform made of breezeblock and concrete. The room is only big enough for six people to sleep, head to toes. There is one light, a plastic rug on the floor, and clothes hanging off nails on the wall. The roof looks like tin and the door is wooden. It is all they have, and not paying extra for rent will help them save money to send home or carry on their journey.

“I share a room with 10 to 15 people, it varies. I have no choice, it is what we have to do,” says Abou Bakr from Gambia, who has a wife and a two-year-old daughter in Gambia who he wants to return to.

Umar, a 24-year-old from Mali, tells me that he wants to go to Italy. “I don’t care if it is dangerous, I need to feed my family.”

Umar doesn’t have money yet, but hopes to save enough to pay smugglers to buy his seat on a boat to Lampedusa. It costs at least $1,000 to get to Lampedusa aboard a smuggler’s boat and it could take him more than six months to earn that kind of money.

“I have brothers and sisters that I have to support, that is my responsibility,” he tells me.

Migrants already face a difficult journey to get to Libya as they have to pay smugglers to cross several countries to enter Libya. The journey across the desert is especially precarious. With little food and water, migrants put their lives in the hands of smugglers. Sometimes migrants have to sleep out in the desert and there are cases where migrants have been taken to the wrong locations and been told they are in Libya. Some die in the desert when they fall off trucks, but even then the drivers do not stop.

Judging by the numbers of migrants entering Libya, many are prepared to take the risks. Osman from Gambia tells me he travelled through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and then Niger to reach Libya.

“I paid about 2,000 dinars ($1,500) to get here from Gambia.

“It took me 10 days to get to Libya. It was a hard journey. We swapped vehicles several times and travelled a lot at night. I had to be careful, I did not want to fall off the vehicle and be left behind.

“I want to stay in Libya, work and then go back to my country. I miss my family. It’s not easy here,” says Osman.

The groups standing under the bridge in Tripoli are divided into their countries of origin. The Nigerians stand together, as do the Malians and Gambians and other nationalities.

The Nigerians complain to me that they sometimes do not get paid.

James says, “There is nothing we can do, they have guns, they are Libyan, and if they decide not to pay us, what are we supposed to do?”

Read the original article published in Anadolu Agency on 5 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.