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Reportage. We went behind the bars of Abu Salim detention center in Libya, where thousands of migrants, including women and children, are held illegally. They’re forced to work, they’re raped and they aren’t provided proper medical care. The only way out is a bribe.

Voices from purgatory: ‘Why are we here?’

The same questions are asked over and over like a pounding litany, waiting for an answer that, at best, will arrive months later. The arbitrary detentions in Libya seem legalized.

Silence, darkness and solitude accompany the already arduous journey of thousands of families trying to escape war, persecution, violence and hunger.

Among cages, bars and temperatures approaching 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), the voices of the migrants ask in various dialects: “Why are we here? And when can I get out?”

We are enclosed in the vortex of the Abu Salim Detention Center, in the homonymous Tripoli district, where, according to estimates of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are at least 6,000 detained migrants.

The red tape for dozens of permits slows down health-related activities, monitoring and judicial processes in the 44 detention centers set up by the Libyans, including 24 managed directly by the al-Sarraj government. In the hours and hours of waiting, time does not exist. Time is the exact moment lived.

Departures of migrants from Libyan shores never stop. Thousands of people continue to arrive every day to Libya. Many try to hide, waiting to board an old fishing boat, after paying a smuggler the sum required. And then they brave the 470 kilometers of sea that separates Libya from Italy. This stretch has become a graveyard for more than 4,500 people in 2016 and more than 1,500 people already this year.

But most of the people are trapped in the limbo of detention centers. The legal situation in Libya winds its way through unconstitutional laws and transitional rules, the result of the ongoing conflict and the legacy of the Gaddafi era.

The result is that today’s migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are all considered illegal aliens and, therefore, are subject to fines, detention and deportation, based on the old 1987 and 2004 laws.

The fines can go as high as 1,000 Libyan dinars (about $730), and they skyrocket if the immigrant does not have any entry documents. The detentions involve forced labor and, almost always, end with expulsion from Libya. The term of imprisonment for a migrant is arbitrary and unpredictable, it can last from a few months to two years.

Abu Salim

One cell, designed to hold four people, is shared by 20 women and 20 children, crammed next to one another. The four corners of the room are occupied by dozens of mattresses, thrown chaotically on the ground.

Mothers comb the hair of disoriented girls who proudly show their bare feet. There are no toys. There is not enough water for everyone. There are five bathrooms for 150 people. Often, the detainees are forced to urinate and defecate in their cells.

“I gave birth to my baby in one of these filthy toilets,” a mother named Naalia tells us. “He was covered in blood and was dying of suffocation.” She tells us about it while standing in front of those nauseatingly smelly latrines, a stench that stings the eyes. A mixture of acid, excrement and urine, washed with buckets of stagnant water.

“That image haunts me,” she says. No doctor assisted Naalia and her son that day. They did not receive any special treatment: The meal was barely 400 calories, and the milk was yellowish and diluted with well water.

Every prison guard carries a Kalashnikov. They swear they take the children out once a day, but in fact the children are let out once every four days. Outside, there is a large open area, where they roam around, doing nothing for a couple of hours, surrounded by barbed wire fences.

We sit with Victor beside the mattress on which he has slept for 10 months and he tells us: “They arrested me in Garabulli.” He wants to tell his family that he is still alive, but he cannot. During arrests, Libyan soldiers systematically confiscate all phones, so their only form of communication is interrupted.
Victor comes from the city of Kano, in northwest Nigeria. “I paid $2,000 to cross Niger, via the Agadez crossing. Then, I arrived in Sabha in Libya, and for another $700 I was led to Garabulli.”

Before risking death in the Mediterranean and before crossing the battlefields of the Libyan civil war, most West African immigrants go through Agadez, which travelers can reach by bus from almost anywhere. It is the northernmost edge of the area known as Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States), similar to Europe’s Schengen area, where people can travel without a visa.

In Agadez, all bus drivers stop and smugglers start moving people across the desert. Only a select few local drivers know which dunes lead to the Sahara and which ones lead to death. The trek to Sabha takes two weeks, without food or water.

Up to 2,000 Migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa go through Libya every week, from the border checkpoint located in the village of Tumo, between Niger and Libya, one of the three main points of entry patrolled by the Libyan army, along with Ghat and Ghadames.

When Victor recounts the details of his journey, his eyes seem unfocused. “No doctor comes to the center,” he says. It is impossible to obtain a detailed list of those held in the Abu Salim cells. No one is informed of the reason for their imprisonment. There is no formal registration, no legal process is performed and no one is allowed to talk to the judicial authorities.

Only once a month, a mobile clinic is admitted to treat skin diseases, diarrhea, and respiratory and urinary infections. The health system in Libya is close to collapse, due to chronic lack of medicines, medical equipment and personnel.

“After 4,000 km,” Victor continues, “I was ready to embark in Garabulli, along with hundreds of other poor bastards. Often, the coast guard, constantly threatened by the traffickers, close their eyes. This time, they captured us and we were taken to Abu Salim.”

There, he was forced to work on their agricultural projects, carry around sand and stones while wearing chains on his wrists, work on paving their roads and participate in the construction of waste collectors. He has been mocked, mistreated, raped and beaten. He was held in prison because he did not have enough money to pay off corrupt police.

How do they leave? The guards provide a phone to detainees and force them to call their relatives and ask them to transfer large sums of money to buy their freedom.

These chilling stories seep into your bones in the silence of the center. Each of these detentions is completely illegitimate.

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