Malta: 'I was in prison...'
01 May 2015

The art of despair: the drawings of detainees in a camp in Benghazi.
The full report "Beyond imagination: asylum seekers testify to life in Libya" is available here.
If you don't have money to pay for your freedom, they abuse you.

Valletta, 1 May 2015 – From the moment they cross the border into Libyan territory, sub-Saharan Africans are in constant danger of being grabbed and placed in custody – by whom, is not always clear. Arrests are systematic at checkpoints controlled by militias at the entry to towns and villages and on the main thoroughfares.

The time in Libya of all the asylum seekers interviewed may be described as a string of spells in detention, from one hellhole to another. The confusion reigning in Libya made it difficult for them to identify their captors: they may have been the official forces of order or one of the militias – some are affiliated with the state, others not. Other times, the captors were powerful civilians who commanded their own bands of thugs and who quite simply kidnapped the asylum seekers for exorbitant ransoms. The frightening thing is that this is totally possible in the lawlessness pervading Libya.

Sometimes the asylum seekers were sold by their smugglers to unscrupulous Libyans, even before they reached Libya, and grabbed when they crossed the border. Others were arrested as soon as they entered Libyan territory and imprisoned. As soon as they managed to leave one prison, the asylum seekers were often promptly re-arrested or kidnapped and imprisoned once again. The only way out for them was to pay up or to escape. But many did not have the means to keep paying for their freedom, once, twice, three times, and failed escape attempts met with terrible punishment.

According to Amnesty International, since 2012, Libya's Department of Combating Irregular Migration (DCIM) has been taking control of places of detention formerly run by militias and by mid-2013 was running 17 so-called "holding centres" across the country, in which between 4,000 to 6,000 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants were held at any time. Detention conditions have ostensibly improved somewhat: better food, more access to healthcare and renovations. However this is not nearly enough. Meanwhile, an unknown number of detainees continue to be held by local militias in camps run in an improvised manner and without any official oversight.

Testimonies

Mehari: "We were caught in Sabha, around 130 of us, and imprisoned in a private building. They called the man holding us 'Colonel', he had guards under his command, and he demanded that we pay $1500 each. He had three of us put in a big refrigerator for several minutes and lined the others up to watch, to scare us into paying.

"He gave us a mobile to call anywhere we liked and arrange for the transfer of money. I called Eritrea and made arrangements, and once I paid, the man organised transport to Tripoli. As soon as we arrived in the city, while we were waiting for someone to pick us up, we were arrested again."

60-year-old Dahabo: "In Libya, you are not safe. Someone will catch you and you have to pay money, but then they hand you over to someone else and you have to pay again, it's a business. If you don't pay, you remain locked up. As soon as we left the desert and approached the city of Sabha, the man who had smuggled us handed us over straight away to someone else, who locked us in a house under armed guard until we could pay.

"One of us tried to escape and was shot and killed. I saw this with my own eyes. I have neither money nor family but after two months the people I was with managed to collect money between them and paid for my freedom."

Tesfay: "I was in three different prisons between January and June 2013, all run by soldiers or police."

17-year-old Sahra: "When you enter Libya, they sell you between them. If you don't have money to pay for your freedom, they abuse you."

The full report is available here.