On 18th May 2015, European Union ministers agreed to launch a naval mission to target the vessels used by human traffickers in Libya. To find out what life in the country is like for the people fleeing war and poverty, Matthew Lee spoke to Rebecca Murray, who’s been reporting from the region for a decade and is one of the few Western journalists currently based in Libya
18th May 2015 (Taken from: #19)
“Over 2,000 migrants and refugees died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the first seven months of 2015, according to IOM (the International Organisation of Migration). When I interview them in Libya they are usually aware of the shipwrecks and of course it’s terrifying. I can’t imagine how scary it must be to get onto one of those overcrowded, unstable boats and sail on the Mediterranean, which can have huge waves.
Most migrants and refugees I meet cannot swim. The traffickers promise uncrowded boats in good condition, but the boats are usually on their last legs and people are packed in like sardines. So many are dying at sea and yet they still feel it’s worth attempting the journey. And when you consider what they’ve already been through to reach the Libyan coast – an arduous, dangerous, expensive trip – it seems like just one more leg to reach what they think will be a much safer place.
I recently interviewed a 20-year-old woman who attempted to reach Europe. For the sake of her safety I cannot use her name. She paid US$2,000 to a people-smuggler in Mogadishu because she needed to escape [Islamist militants] al-Shabab. The smugglers took her on a bus with other migrants to Kenya, where they were kept for a few days before heading to Juba in South Sudan, which is experiencing its own conflict.
Their vehicle came under attack in Juba; I met another woman whose legs were riddled with bullets during the attack. The group managed to escape Juba and reach Khartoum in Sudan, where they waited a couple of days before being driven across the border into southern Libya. There, they were stopped by men who called themselves ‘police’ who wanted to extort money from them.
This young Somali woman I met was asked for US$4,500, which she didn’t have. She was stuck outdoors in the desert for days, she said, and the smugglers didn’t care when she told them it was impossible to get the money. Eventually she managed to call her family in Somalia, who sold their home to raise the money, and the smugglers sent her on her way.
She went to a ‘safe house’ in the town of Ajdabiya, where the women in her group were raped and beaten, and then she had to travel westwards through a region of Libya that Isis has made its stronghold, the area around Sirte. Isis made videos of its brutal beheadings of people from Ethiopia and Egypt, and these really struck fear into the people attempting this journey. Not only do they have to avoid flash checkpoints run by Isis, they also have to steer clear of those run by competing local militias, and not get arrested by the local authorities. There’s a breakdown of the rule of law and criminal gangs are flourishing.
This woman managed to reach Tripoli, where she spent a while in a safe house before being put on a boat, I think near the port of Garabulli. She told me that she spent a couple of hours at sea before her boat was caught by the Libyan coastguard, who put the passengers in a detention centre. When I met her in August 2015, she’d been in that detention centre for two months already.
There used to be 20 official detention centres in Libya. Now there are eight in operation, not including the many unofficial centres policed by militias. The official ones range from relatively OK – and I feel terrible for saying that – to horrific. When I visited the Misrata centre in June, which is peak season for people attempting to cross the Mediterranean, it was extremely hot and crowded. There were 800 people in a small building and they couldn’t physically lie down; they had to sleep sitting upright. There are iron bars on the windows – these people are locked up and they’re asking why they’re being punished for a crime they haven’t committed.
I saw lots of women and children at this centre, including one Eritrean who’d had a baby the previous night. She was rushed to hospital when she went into labour, and the following day she was back at the detention centre with her baby. There was also a Somali woman at the centre who almost passed out due to dehydration. She’d been in the courtyard under the sun for three hours in the middle of the day and she couldn’t get help because nobody would pay for an ambulance. The centre officials said that sometimes they have to pay for ambulances out of their own pocket when the situation is really dire.
When I first arrived in Libya in 2012 the situation was better. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and IOM were in the country, as were many international embassies and companies. The luxury hotels were full of people talking about development plans. Now it’s very different. The international community has fled to Tunis and elsewhere; lots of organisations have left due to the conflicts here. Foreign journalists visit but don’t tend to live here. Embassies have largely closed, with a few exceptions.
There were 800 people in a small building and it was so crowded people couldn’t physically lie down; they had to sleep sitting upright”
So Libya is extremely isolated and migrants here are feeling abandoned. None of the people I’ve met said they have been in contact with staff of either UNHCR or IOM – both have people in the country but they’re mostly confined to their homes for their safety. When I visit detention centres in Libya I sometimes see the same Somalis and Eritreans I saw there months earlier, and they’re now angry towards the media. They give us interviews but they say it’s no use – they never hear from international organisations, and their situation never seems to improve.
There’s a sense of helplessness among ordinary Libyans. Only a small minority benefit from people-smuggling, and the vast majority are horrified by the violence that migrants and refugees endure. There’s a lot of empathy because many Libyans want to leave the country too. It’s frustrating that the international media coverage of Libya rarely focuses on the stories of ordinary Libyans and the obstacles they face in the escalating conflict.
While migrants and refugees seem to know that crossing the sea is very dangerous, they don’t seem to understand how tough life in Europe will be. There’s a lack of awareness of the reality, and perhaps that’s partly because those who reach Europe don’t want to look like a failure when they call their families, who have made such sacrifices to finance their journeys.
There’s a church in Tripoli that offers food and a temporary sanctuary to both Christians and Muslims. The pastor has been trying to warn migrants that it’s tough in Europe but they’re telling him that anything is better than what they’re escaping from. The boat deaths do not seem to be a deterrent. Even the rise of Isis in Libya is not acting as a deterrent. They’re just more formidable hurdles for the people trying to make this journey.”
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