Sophie Claudet: Valérie, you’re just back from Libya, and you filmed in Tripoli. The news we get from Libya are rather grim. The country is chronically unstable. Was it tough to get to Tripoli? And to move around?
Valérie Gauriat: It really wasn’t simple. Tripoli is supposed to be a relatively safe area in Libya, compared to the eastern and western parts of the country, where fighting against ISIS has been going on. But the city is nonetheless prey to rivalry and shootouts between militias, which are competing for control over the town. There are some 30 different militias in the city of Tripoli alone. When we were filming this report, there was some fighting and conflict between militias. We didn’t come across it, but we did hear the shooting at night.
And in various parts of Tripoli, you do see checkpoints with men in arms, marking their control over different areas of the capital.
Sophie Claudet: Your report focuses on the plight of migrants, and especially those who hail from Sub-Saharan Africa. How did you meet them, in the streets? We see in your report that they gather at a round-about where they go look for work. Can you see them in large numbers in Tripoli or are they confined to detention centers?
Valérie Gauriat: That’s what’s surprising. You do see them in town, but they’re pretty discreet, somehow like fearful shadows. Those who are in retention centers, obviously, you don’t see. But in the city, you have this roundabout, which is famous in Tripoli, where you see dozens of men waiting for Libyans to come and pick them up to go and do odd jobs here and there, often without pay. And not far from that roundabout, there’s a well-known neighborhood called Grigares, which really is a lawless no-go area. It’s a kind of ghetto where a lot of Africans who are not detained live, in miserable conditions, in hostels most often held by Libyan tenants, who allegedly ransom them and..
Sophie Claudet: mistreat them…
Valérie Gauriat: Eventually yes. Even just walking outside is potentially dangerous for them. They told us kidnapping and racketing were commonplace. And it’s true that it’s not recommended to hand around in that neighborhood. We did try to go there. But we only had time to go around in our car, we were actually followed and we had to get out very quickly. I must say the people who were following us did look quite threatening.
Sophie Claudet: Does this mean that as a journalist you’re potential target and you can be kidnapped?
Valérie Gauriat: We are a potential target, and we were told to be careful, where to go, and not to take the camera just anywhere. Journalists were kidnapped while we were in Libya. We had to be low profile because obviously journalists represent equipment and money potentially.
Sophie Claudet: Were the journalists eventually freed?
Valérie Gauriat: Yes, they were released quickly, how I don’t know.
Sophie Claudet: Coming back to migrants, you used the word jailed earlier on. Are they really put in jail or you mean that the detention centers are just like prisons?
Valérie Gauriat: It’s hard not to use the word prison. They do feel like prisons, even if I haven’t visited that many. These centres are really in the city outskirts. They’ve got iron doors, with big locks.. People can go out in the courtyard once in a while. But they are packed in squalid sheds, in very harsh conditions. They tell us they are often ill-treated, and that was obvious. There are also men in arms in the centres. So yes, they are a sort of very unruly prisons.
Sophie Claudet: So how does it go? They reach Libya after crossing the desert, in very tough conditions, then they’re nabbed and put in detention centers? What concretely happens to the migrants?
Valérie Gauriat: There are different scenarios. There’s an authority in charge of fighting against illegal immigration, called the DCIM. It sub-contracts work to various brigades. There’s an intervention squad which goes on raids against smugglers safe-houses, where they hid groups of migrants before they send them off at sea.
There, when migrants are caught they are sent to the various retention centres, after spending a little time on the DCIM premises. And then, they are just left to their fate. They can stay in those centres for months. their families often don’t even know they’re there. Sometimes they get out with a ransom…
Sophie Claudet: but where do they find the money?
Valérie Gauriat: There’s a lot of solidarity in their communities. And it also works through word of mouth. Sometimes a guard will be a little more complacent than another, and will give them access to a phone, or bring them some food, or go and warn their families, their relatives, their community. So there are some possibilities to communicate with the outside. But most of them told us they had no contact with their families. Because a lot of them are actually living in Libya.
Sophie Claudet: Valerie, we see in your report that migrants are left to their own devices. That some of them are obviously starving. I’m thinking of two men in particular that look like concentration camps survivors. The UN refugee agency and the IOM are supposed to look after these people, is aid reaching them, is it being diverted, embezzled, is there an issue corruption? How come these people are being neglected?
Valérie Gauriat: That’s a big question. You do see the international organisations’ aid kits in the centres, items distributed by international organisations. Humanitarian assistance is delivered now and then, every two or three months. These organisations know exactly what is going on in these centres. They do make regular visits.
When we spoke to them they did talk about the high levels of corruption in the country, including within the institutions. The libyan authorities on their side accuse the international organisations of shortcomings. And one of the main criticisms is that they are no longer based on the Libyan territory, but in Tunisia
Sophie Claudet: For security reasons?
Valérie Gauriat: Obviously, yes. They do have local staff in Libya, who try to do what they can.
But they seem a little overwhelmed by the situation.
Sophie Claudet: In closing, what are the prospects for these migrants? If any at all? What did they tell you? Are they still hoping to cross over to Europe? Though it is very expensive I imagine. What kind of outcome can one expect for this terrible humanitarian crisis?
Valérie Gauriat: It’s hard to know. Those who are in the retention centres are just confined there. Those who are outside just can’t stay in Libya. There’s no work, no resources, no security for them. So they just say well since I can’t go back to my country, there’s war, there’s poverty, I’ll just try and make the crossing to Europe, whatever the cost.
It’s also true that all those to whom we spoke in the retention centres insisted that they wanted to go back to their countries, that they didn’t want to risk their lives at sea, they’d had enough. And the main message was please help us to get out of here, now, and go back home.
Sophie Claudet: Are they free to leave the detention centers if they decide to go back to where they came from, to go home. Can they do that?
Valérie Gauriat: Well they do need to be registered, by the IOM for instance, and then it can take months and months before there’s any result. So in principle yes, they could go back. Provided their countries are in a position to have them back. And that’s not a simple matter.
Sophie Claudet: Does it mean they no longer have passports with them? Or any proof of identity?
Valérie Gauriat: Many don’t have their passport. Some do, but those for instance who actually live in Libya, have their documents at home, with their families, from which they are cut off. We met people who’d been in the centers for months, who told us they didn’t even know why they were there. Nobody came to visit them and explain. Of course there’s no legal follow up whatsoever.
Sophie Claudet: So the countries they come from are partially responsible… whether DR Congo, Cameroon or Cote d’Ivoire for example… not that I want to stigmatize these countries in particular, though we see in your report that migrants often hail from these countries and that authorities don’t do much for their nationals.
Valérie Gauriat: Once in a while, there are repatriations. Some embassies do react, and take groups of people back. Nigeria has done so recently for instance. Other countries do it now and then. But what the Libyan authorities told us was that most often, embassies do not cooperate, when there are embassies. And in many cases they just don’t know what to do with these people, as said in the report. So yes, there is a responsibility on the part of African States, thought they also are overwhelmed by the number of people they would have to deal with.
Sophie Claudet: Thank you Valerie for your insights, thank you for this poignant report.
Valérie Gauriat: Thank you Sophie.