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Libya: a dead-end for migrants


Libya: a dead-end for migrants

Migration has soared in Libya, a country in utter chaos since the fall of its leader Muammar Gaddafi five years ago. Hundreds of thousands of women, children and men have fled war and poverty.

Competing factions in Libya are fighting for power, although there was a glimmer of hope earlier this month, when Libyan forces recaptured ISIL-held territory.

But peace is a long way ahead, even in the capital Tripoli. Libyans of course are paying a heavy price, but they’re not the only ones. The country has long been a gateway for sub-Saharan migrants hoping to cross to Europe. But now that the country is in tatters, ruled by three competing governments, the six countries bordering Libya are no longer manned.

Caught in the country’s instability and lawlessness, sub-Saharan migrants are exposed to abuse, violence and trafficking. International aid does not always reach them and they rot in detention centers, often in sub-human conditions.

The migrants — who hail from Eritrea, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Congo, among other places — are illegal because Libya does not offer them the possibility of asylum. Some still dream of crossing over to Europe, but the journey is as expensive as it is dangerous. The UN says close to 5,000 migrants have lost their lives at sea so far in 2016.

Migrants’ stories of abuse

Euronews reporter Valerie Gauriat traveled to Tripoli where she caught up with migrants, recorded their stories of abuse and their cry for a way out. Here is her report.

Five years after being plunged into instability after the fall of former prime minister Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is a major a crossroads of irregular immigration and is officially home to nearly 300,000 migrants.

Many are willing to attempt the perilous, 300 kilometre journey to Europe.

The under-resourced coast guards do their best to respond, but can do little to avert tragedies.

The team that works the area off the Tripoli coast has just six of these small boats, to cover a 120 km zone.

Boats not built for the high seas, or to travel long distances.

The head of the Tripoli coastguard told Euronews that the European ships in the Mediterranean, has increased the number of crossings.

“Today, migrants, instead of having to cross 200 to 400 nautical miles, can easily have to cross a dozen miles. After passing the Libyan territorial waters, they directly find the boats from operation Sophia waiting for them, to take them to Europe’s shores.”

“They put a huge number of people on the boats, because they are betting on the short distance. The result is that as soon as they leave, and before they reach the 12 miles, the boats sink! And this is the main cause of the increase in the number of fatalities.”

According to the United Nations, a record number of people have died in the Mediterranean this year: nearly 4,700.

Boats intercepted by the Libyan coast guards have been specially made to transport migrants; and the smuggling business is prosperous. Since January more than 14,000 migrants have been rescued at sea. This is over four times the number than in previous years.

The migrant smuggling business has been booming since the fall of Gaddafi.

A group of people smugglers told Euronews that the past year has been one of their best yet: each crossing nets them between 16,000 and more than 100,000 euros, depending on the boat.

“Operation Sophia made things easier for us,” he said. “Before that, it could take 17, 20, 24 hours, to cross. Now it takes maximum four hours.”

“Like the coast guards, the DCIM teams are short of resources;
Workers have not been paid for three months,” he adds.

The department’s head of administration says everything suffers.

“The equipment, the computers, the cars, the uniforms, communication means, the walkie talkies .. for all that, we need some assistance.”

The finger of blame points to the international community.

“The fact that the European Union, the IOM, Frontex, and the United Nations do not respect the agreements signed with the Libyan state, in terms of financial, logistical and technical aid, has increased the problem,” the head of international relations at the DCIM told Euronews.

“I want to emphasise that Libya does not want to remain for ever the policeman who works for free to arrest the migrants who go to Europe. The hidden political aim at European level is to make Libya a grey zone, to regroup all illegal immigrants here, and make them Libyan citizens. It will not happen. For the Libyan people will never accept that. “

The migrants arrested by the DCIM brigades are sent to one of the country’s 22 detention centres.

We turn up unexpected at one of them in Tripoli.

The manager is not here. A guard let us in.

Under the authority of the interior ministry, centres are most often run by the militias, fighting for control of the country, in parallel with the official authorities.

Euronews saw more than a hundred men pile up in one shed, amid the pungent smell of stale urine.

“There are people who’ve been here for 10 months, some who have been here for 6 months, some for a year.”

“There are people who died,,people who are injured, there are people who have lost their lives!”

Many have been wounded by truncheons and sometimes, they say, by bullets. Most of these men are sick. Insects are everywhere.

They tell us some people have died because of the unhygienic conditions and lack of care.

We head to the women’s quarters.

At first sight, the conditions seem less gruesome. An impression that is short-lived.

“I am a pregnant woman.I have no medical care, we don’t eat! We don’t sleep well! They shoot at people, they shoot at any time!”

“She doesn’t have milk to drink, she’s eating white rice. She’s four months old, she’s been here for three months! There’s nothing for her, there are no nappies.”
“Look at the rice that a baby eats. It’s three-day old rice.”

Just like the men before them, all these women tell us they had no plans to travel to Europe, and want to go home to their countries.

They say they were captured in the street, or at their homes in Tripoli.

“You’re just walking outside, they kidnap you! They say they catch us at sea it’s a lie!They say hello and they kidnap you! We’ve become a business for them now. We’ve realised we’ve become a business for them! They just want to make money off our back. Because of the international aid they get! We did not even get 5 percent of that aid. And we did not come to Libya to receive donations, we came here to improve our life conditions! If they don’t want to see us on their territory, then they should help us to just get out of this country!”

Many of these women lost their babies due to lack of care. They say threats and beatings are frequent. And rapes are commonplace.

“When we have no money, they abuse us … They take us from behind! From behind.. I have a son, sometimes he wants to drink milk, he needs that. But when you have no money, you have to play by their rules. You just let them take you from behind, let them abuse you, abuse you! I don’t hide my face out of shame. I hide my face because afterwards, they can hurt me.”

While ill-treatment is notorious in many centres, some do try to do as best they can.

Some 50 migrants are detained a different centre, also in Tripoli. The manager says the centre cannot cater for any more.

The inmates tell us they are well treated by their guardians. But they too want to leave as soon as possible. These women escaped a prostitution network and were arrested when they tried to take a boat to cross illegally to Europe.

“They are treating us very fine here. But we are tired of staying in this place. Because they want us to go back to Nigeria, and we are ready to go back to Nigeria.

“The IOM said that we should wait, we should wait. That is why we are waiting. Until now we have not seen any result that we are going. And december is coming to an end. We have to go home!”

According to the Libyan authorities, some 8,000 people have been sent back to their country since May 2015.

But for the majority of irregular migrants, return is impossible, to countries torn by conflict and poverty.

In conversation with EU defence and security official Pedro Serrano

Is there a way out for these people, or are they condemned to die in Libya or perhaps at sea if they attempt the journey to Europe? And who is to blame? The Libyan authorities, smugglers, Europe and international aid agencies as some point out in the report?

Sophie Claudet, Euronews:
“The UN-backed Libyan government says that operation Sophia is a blessing in disguise for smugglers while it used to take probably 200 nautical miles before the migrants were rescued, now it’s about twelve. So smugglers will pile them up on boats knowing that they will be rescued, so the migrants will be encouraged to take to the sea.”

Pedro Serrano:
“We do not consider this as an operation that attracts migrants. It saves migrants in different ways. By saving them physically from the sea. Operation Sophia so far has directly has saved about 30-thousand persons and I think that was a main goal for the European Union, but also by addressing criminal bands (gangs) that are responsible for migrant trafficking and Operation Sophia has detained more than 100 traffickers and also destroyed a large number of vessels that were used by traffickers. By doing this, it discourages the practice.”

Sophie Claudet, Euronews:
“So in your mind it is a success?”

Pedro Serrano:
“It is having a number of successes in part of the tasks that it has been given, yes.”

Sophie Claudet, Euronews:
“The Libyan authorities also complain that they don’t receive enough logistical support from Europe and international agencies.”

Pedro Serrano:
“We do not receive the same messages on our side. We are cooperating actively with the Libyan authorities, we are assisting the Libyan authorities as much as we can in terms of training and building their capacities. You know the present difficulties for the expansion of authority of the Government of National Accord, which imposes, inevitably, limitations.

“By training the Libyan coast guard, which is one of the tasks that Sophia has undertaken, we intend to help the Libyan authorities and the Government of National Accord, President Sarraj [note: he’s actually the prime minister] to gain control over some elements that can provide security and that will be directly under the control of the GNA. So we are doing everything we can to empower the GNA as the legitimate authority recognised, as you rightly said, by the UN Security Council. So this is what we are currently doing.”

Sophie Claudet, Euronews:
“And do you feel they receive all the equipment, all the logistical support that they need, because they’ve told us the opposite? Or it a matter of time?”

Pedro Serrano:
“The equipment and logistical support is in the pipeline. It’s linked also to the training and to ensure that it will all be put to a proper use and that it falls into the right hands because it is a complex scenario right now in terms of who controls what in Libya, so there are obviously also limitations linked to these conditions.”

Sophie Claudet, Euronews:
“Several human rights organizations have accused Europe of outsourcing its police work to Libya. Namely Europe can’t send back migrants rescued at sea, so it is training Libyan coast guards to do just that, although Libya is a very dangerous place for migrants.”

Pedro Serrano:
“The main goal of the European Union is saving lives and addressing the plight of migrants, and what we’re doing is working with IOM as much as we can. The situation in those centres is horrible. I think we are really shocked and very worried about this.

“We are trying to address this together with Special Representative [of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Martin] Kobler, and with IOM and UNHCR. We’re ready to put as many resources as necessary, but both the UN and ourselves are finding challenges in addressing this directly because of the situation in Libya because the control of the government over assets and state assets is so far limited.”

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