Published: November 04, 2019
To others, Ali seemed like the lucky one. The teenager from Somalia survived July’s Tajoura migrant detention centre bombing in eastern Tripoli, Libya, which killed at least 53 refugees and migrants.
In the chaos afterwards, Ali managed to escape and travel to smugglers on the coast. Days later, he was across the Mediterranean Sea in Italy.
Despite arriving in Europe, Ali couldn’t rest. He still had injuries from the bombing. Anxiety and nightmares kept him awake. He contracted tuberculosis in detention and needed regular treatment. In August, he tried to kill himself.
Ali, whose story I’ve confirmed with others and whose name has been changed for his protection, says he fled Islamic militant group Al Shabaab in Somalia, and travelled to Libya in the hope of reaching safety in Europe. His brother and sister-in-law, who made the journey too, were among the more than 17,000 people who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.
No one is measuring how many people are dying in Libya’s detention centres. There are suicides
Ali experienced a different fate. Like thousands of others, he was caught at sea by the EU-backed Libyan coastguard, and brought back to Libya, where he was locked up indefinitely in one of the detention centres run by the department for combatting illegal migration.
Human rights groups have documented sexual violence, forced labour, the deprivation of food and water, physical violence and even murder of detainees in these centres. Hundreds of children inside them them go without an education.
Last month, applause and cheers filled the European Parliament chamber as MEPs found out a non-binding resolution, intended to address the treatment of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, had failed.
Much attention has been drawn to the fact that the resolution failed to pass by just two votes, and all four Fine Gael MEPs – Mairead McGuinness, Maria Walsh, Frances Fitzgerald and Seán Kelly – voted against it.
While headlines highlighted how European search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean won’t be reinstated, the failed resolution wasn’t just about what the EU is not doing. It was also about what it is doing: actively supporting the return of migrants and refugees – including women and children – to detention centres in Libya where they’re exploited, abused and even killed.
Returning people to somewhere their lives could be in danger goes against international law, but the EU circumvents this by providing the Libyan coastguard with equipment, training and information, and letting it to do the interceptions. Tens of millions of euro are being spent on the Libyan coastguard through the EU Trust Fund for Africa.
The failed resolution would have recognised that “people intercepted by the Libyan coastguard are transferred to detention centres where they are systematically exposed to arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions and where torture and other ill-treatment, including rape, arbitrary killings and exploitation are endemic.”
'I know that European governments hate migrants'
It would have called on the European Commission and member states “to assess the allegations of serious fundamental rights violations by the Libyan coastguard and to end the co-operation in the event of serious fundamental rights violations faced by people intercepted at sea”.
It would also have called for migrants and refugees in detention centres to be evacuated, and for the EU to offer more resettlement places so the UN can legally move those who need it to a place of safety.
Since August 2018, I’ve been in regular contact with refugees and migrants who are locked up in Libyan detention centres. The majority have already tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe – some four, five or six times. Most say they will keep trying, because it’s better to die a fast death in the sea than a slow one locked up in prison.
No one is measuring how many people are dying in Libya’s detention centres. There are suicides. Meron, a 17-year-old who escaped a dictatorship in Eritrea, threw himself in a septic tank in April after war broke out around the centre he was in. Abdulaziz, a married 28-year-old from Somalia, set himself on fire in another centre last year, telling friends he felt hopeless at his chances of evacuation.
Then there are many deaths from neglect. A seven-year-old boy and his father were just two of the 22 deaths in Zintan detention centre between September 2018 and the end of May 2019 – an average of one death every 12 days.
Before the bombing in Tajoura, detainees had already warned they could be targeted. They were being held inside a military complex, and some had been ordered to work in the weapons stores. Survivors accused the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (one of two governments in Libya) of using them as “human shields”.
This weekend, Italy renewed its own deal with the Libyan coastguard. Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said it would be “unwise” to stop as it was “undeniable that it has reduced the number of arrivals and deaths at sea”. This comes, despite increasing evidence the coastguard and trafficking gangs include many of the same people.
“I know that European governments hate migrants,” one Darfuri in detention messaged me recently. “They have not said so as explicitly as [former Italian far-right interior minister Matteo] Salvini did, but they have [shown] it in their continued support for Libyan coastguard and ignore innocent migrants (being victims) of torture, murder, violence and human trafficking. They are fully aware of it.”
Sally Hayden is based in Kampala and writes for The Irish Times on Africa source