In Libya’s militia-run migrant detention centers, across compounds and warehouses controlled by smugglers, refugees have given up talking about their dreams. Many have waited years in the north African country that serves as a launching point for boats to Europe. Some have tried to cross the sea already—once, twice, three or more times; others are hoping for a legal route to safety. But when fleeing wars, dictatorships, or crushing poverty, they had no idea they’d end up locked away instead.
Dozens of refugee and migrant detainees marked their second anniversary imprisoned at Dhar El-Jebel this September, deep in Libya’s Nafusa Mountains—two years without charge or trial. The detention center is nicknamed “Libya’s Guantanamo” because of its remoteness and the level of suffering that happens inside. Detainees were shuttled between other detention centers before ending up at Dhar El-Jebel, following months or years of being tortured and ransomed by smugglers after fleeing war, dictatorships, or crushing poverty in their home countries. Since 2018, I’ve been in touch with several people in Dhar El-Jebel who use hidden phones to send me updates about what’s going on—such as how they have been abused and denied medical care and how high the death toll has grown. Last year, refugees translated their experiences into song, calling to be released and evacuated to somewhere they could feel secure for the first time in their lives: “Make the world hear our painful voice. Our roads to survive are closed.” The music, which they managed to upload onto YouTube, has garnered nearly 100,000 views—yet help was not forthcoming.
But this detention center is just one of dozens across Libya—and the experiences of those held against their will epitomize the suffering of refugees and migrants throughout Northern Africa who long to cross the Mediterranean Sea. “We are completely abandoned,” Hamid, an Eritrean refugee in Dhar El-Jebel messaged me recently. “We are in Hell and darkness.” He asked to go by a false name for fear of being retaliated against by the Libyan guards who watch over them. Like hundreds of thousands of Eritreans, he fled his Horn of Africa birth country in search of freedom, leaving behind a suffocating dictatorship and a system of mandatory, never-ending military service (which a United Nations commission of inquiry has described as “slavery-like”).
“I don’t have any good memories in the hell [of] Libya. I have been detained for a long time in prison. Because of that I feel desperate,” Hamid said, adding that he wonders if the outside world exists anymore since it’s been so long since he’s seen it. Of the 110 people who tried to cross the Mediterranean with him on July 13, 2018, around twenty are still at Dhar El-Jebel, along with hundreds of others caught on different days.
As of August 2020, there are more than 46,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Thousands of them have been trapped for years in a brutal cycle, where they experience what a recent Amnesty International report called a “catalogue of cruelty.” Increasingly, Libyans themselves are also trying to reach Europe, fleeing from sporadic conflict and militia-rule, which sees civilians harassed, kidnapped, and killed at checkpoints. Yet, who gets out is a gamble, due to hardening European migration policy, including the effective criminalization of NGO rescue efforts. Instead, tens of thousands of men, women, and children have been imprisoned over the past few years after being caught by Libyan coastguards, a loose body, which includes former smugglers, yet has been equipped, trained and otherwise supported by the European Union since 2017.
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A small Libyan refugee boy poses in front of his UNHCR family tent in Remada, Tunisia, in May 2011. The camp hosts some 750 Libyans from Nalhut and Zintan. These two cities located in Western Libya have been the scene of heavy fighting between rebel and government forces for the past weeks. I am posting photos I took when I was in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia at the time of the 2011 Libyan Revolution. I was then on emergency missions for the unhcr. #libya #lybie #salloum #arabspring #ghadaffi #kadhafi #rebels #documentaryphotography #photojournalism #archives #2011 #wehaveadream #displaced #refugees #unhcr #libyanrefugees #libyanrevolution #destruction #war #women #children #remada #refugeecamp #tent #mattresses #tunisia
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For detained refugees and migrants, there are few routes out. “The point of arbitrary detention, there’s no process, they’re just people, they’re there and there’s no procedure, either legal or administrative,” said Sacha Petiot, Médecins Sans Frontières’ head of mission in Libya in a phone call from Tunisia. “So they’re there indefinitely in whatever detention [center]. The only option for them is either to try to escape or to wait for UNHCR to proceed with their resettlement.”
Since March, evacuation and resettlement flights have been on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic (a process usually organized by UNHCR for a small number of refugees and asylum seekers deemed to be most vulnerable). Before that, selected people were occasionally moved to transit camps in Niger or Rwanda, where their cases could be properly processed, though occasionally evacuees were flown directly to countries like Italy. Fewer than 2,500 people were evacuated in 2019, with refugees already complaining that the number chosen for the scheme was too low and the process too opaque to trust.
Petiot says the halt in evacuation flights has convinced a lot of refugees and migrants to make another attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea. “They’re seeing that [the] UNHCR is blocked up… so the only legal option that was there is no longer an option,” he said.
For those who can afford the fee that smugglers are currently demanding, often between $1,300 and $2,200 USD, the short-term risk of drowning seems less painful than the likelihood of wasting away, or even dying, in detention. “We are not with those who died and we are not with those who are living,” said a refugee in Tripoli who plans to go to sea soon, describing the limbo of being stuck in Libya. “Drowning won’t stop others from trying,” he added. “We will continue to risk our life like our former brothers did.”
Few who’ve tried have actually made it: In late July, six refugees who had escaped Dhar El-Jebel were among 95 people who finally set foot on European soil. The group, including a newborn baby, were left adrift on a flimsy boat for 35 hours after they called for help, before eventually being rescued and taken to Malta. But they’re considered the lucky ones.
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Young Libyan boys play soccer at a youth center in Zarzis, Tunisia, in May 2011. They fled the war in Libya with their families. I am posting photos I took when I was in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia at the time of the 2011 Libyan Revolution. I was then on emergency missions for the unhcr. #libya #lybie #salloum #arabspring #ghadaffi #kadhafi #rebels #documentaryphotography #photojournalism #photoarchives #2011 #wehaveadream #displaced #refugees #unhcr #libyanrefugees #libyanrevolution #destruction #war #children #tunisia #zarzis #soccer #boys
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In Dhar el-Jebel, two detainees have already died this year: one, the victim of a sunstroke after temperatures rose above 40 degrees celsius; another, weak from tuberculosis, killed by a fire that broke out due to unknown causes. In June, a Libyan guard was murdered when a militia attacked the center. And these deaths pale in comparison to what happened between 2018 and 2019, when at least 23 detainees perished, mostly as a result of rampant disease and medical neglect.
Hamid, surrounded by this suffering, has stopped imagining any future beyond an escape route out: “We are so desperate. We are locked inside small cells. We don’t know when the sun rises and when the sun sets.”
Migration is one of the biggest challenges humanity will face in our time. At the moment, the coronavirus pandemic is leading to Sub-Saharan Africa’s first recession in 25 years. Looking forward, by 2050, the population of Africa is expected to double, combined with hundreds of millions of people who may be forced to migrate over the next fifty years due to climate hazards. Faced with the possibility of ever increasing numbers of arrivals, it seems likely Europe will continue to increase the security on its borders, locking out those who need help or are searching for a better life. As walls go up, people like Hamid will continue to look for escape routes or suffer the consequences. And we may never know how many die trying.