IRIN has gained rare access to one of Libya's detention centres where thousands of migrants are locked up for months and forced to work in deplorable conditions
Photos and story by Tom Westcott in Misrata
Four months incarcerated in a Libyan detention centre has destroyed Charles's dreams of a better life in Europe: "I don't want to go to Europe anymore, I just want to go home,” he says.
After enduring long, perilous journeys through the Sahara desert, often experiencing kidnapping and violence at the hands of smugglers, migrants and asylum-seekers who eventually reach Libya risk arrest and long periods of incarceration in one of the country’s 20 official detention centres – all of which are overcrowded and underfunded. Outside the Krareem detention centre for irregular migrants on the outskirts of Misrata, 250 Eritreans and Somalis are sitting cross-legged in the sand, waiting to board buses. They have no idea where they are being taken.
“There are hundreds of people here, and some have been beaten,” says Abu, 24, from Somalia, who is among those waiting.
“There is fighting in our countries so we ran away, looking for a better future, but here it is very bad, and now our lives have been shut down. Please help us,” he adds, speaking hurriedly in a low voice.
A prison guard explains that the Krareem centre has become too crowded and the 219 men and 31 women are being transferred to another centre on the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital.
As the last of the migrants board a bus, shouting erupts from inside the centre. Hands stretch through the high grilled windows as a man demands to know where his wife – inside one of the buses – is being taken. A warning shot from a guard silences him and the hands are withdrawn.
“We often fire guns in the air, to help us keep control,” head of the detention centre, Mohamed Ahmed al-Baghar says. With just 34 guards working in shifts, keeping order over the 1,100 migrants currently held at the centre is a challenge, he explains. “Because this centre is small, I have to send a lot of people to other centres. The situation is just getting worse because more illegal immigrants are coming all the time.”
Inside the detention centre, the smell of hundreds of unwashed bodies fills the air and there are flies everywhere.
“The situation is very hard here. There are fights in the toilet every day because there are hundreds of people using the same toilet,” says Alaji, 25, from Gambia who has been at the centre for five months.
The tiled floor is sticky. Alaji explains that it has just been washed and that an hour before, it was covered in blood. “They beat us with chains,” he says, leaning his young, exhausted face against the bars. “Yesterday, someone tried to escape, so they were beating us all day.”
Many of the men are forced to do hard labour during the day. “They make us do donkey work – work that should be done with machines but they use human beings. And if we complain, they beat us. They treat us like criminals,” says Alaji who worked as a painter and decorator in Tripoli for six months before being arrested for being undocumented. He is now desperate to go home.
Some of the detained migrants are eventually deported to Niger by bus, but Baghar says many return: “People from Niger come again and again and they won’t stop trying. Many times I have seen the same faces, even after we have sent them back."
A small number of detainees are returned home via a voluntary repatriation programme run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – now operating from Tunisia – in cooperation with governments of some origin countries. The process is lengthy, however, and since July 2014 only 400 people have been repatriated through the scheme.
Other migrants, even those with refugee status, are held indefinitely, unless they manage to escape, pay their way out, or are arbitrarily released due to overcrowding.
For the Eritreans, returning home is not an option:
Emanuel and his friend Jonata, 25, escaped from the army and made the difficult journey to Libya only to discover that they had traded one type of hell for another. Jonata says they were caught four months ago in the desert on their way to Tripoli. “There was a big fight between the smugglers and the police and some people were killed, but no one cared about them.”
The youngest detainee in the centre is 10-year-old Malti from Niger who says his parents were so poor he decided to leave home and travel to Libya with some men from his village. Young children are kept with their mothers in a separate room in the centre or transferred to one of two prisons for women. But children like Malti are kept with adult men.
In another section of the detention centre, a large room with small, high windows holds 142 people who were captured by coast guards off the coast of Misrata five days earlier, attempting to make the crossing to Europe in inflatable boats.
IRIN spoke to some of men on the harbour-side at Misrata port before they were taken to the detention centre. “I would do anything not to go to prison here. We all know what it is like. It would be better to die than go there,” says Mobo, 20, from Nigeria.
Life at the Krareem centre is as bad as he imagined. Some of the men say they have been badly beaten by the guards. Jakab, 26, from Senegal, lifts his tracksuit top to reveal arms covered in welts and bruises. His thighs have been so badly beaten that he cannot stand.
“There was no reason for it. We were outside and they threw water on us and told us to lie on the floor. Then they beat us,” he says.
Many detainees complain that they are given only salt water to drink.
Blaming chronic underfunding, detention centre head Baghar admits there is a problem with the water supply. “It’s because of money – a local company desalinates water in big tanks and delivers it, but the desalination process is unreliable, so, yes, sometimes the water is salty. But what can we do?”
He says the centre receives no funding or support from the government apart from staff wages paid by the Ministry of the Interior. Even the catering company, which brews huge vats of chick peas for the once-daily meal migrants are given, has not been paid since 2012, according to Baghar. “It would be a disaster if they stopped working, but they are owed thousands of dinars,” he says.
Detainees describe the meagre food rations as the least of their problems. Worse is sleeping in rooms so overcrowded there is not always space to lie down, and living under the constant threat of abuse by the guards. They feel abandoned by their governments and by international aid organisations.
“It took me a month to get here and in the desert it was terrible. Not everyone made it,” says 17-year-old Charles from Ghana. “But I didn’t expect it would be like this and I would tell people not to come, because there is no government in Libya and the situation is terrible.”
*Some names have been changed