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‘They are not treated like humans’ The Abuse of migrants in Libya

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Abuse of migrants is becoming systematic in Libya, raising questions about European agreements to pay the North African country to stem the flow

Sudarsan Raghavan

ZAWIYAH, Libya — The doors of the detention center were bolted shut. Hundreds of migrants were locked inside, with as many as 20 crammed into each cell. Scrawny and barefoot, the men peered through the small, square openings in the metal doors as the stench of urine and body odor hung in the stale air.“I’ve eaten only a piece of bread today,” an Algerian man whispered. “I beg you, can you help me?”

Yet for these migrants, mostly Africans fleeing poverty, war or persecution, the worst part of their experience in Libya began before they reached this crowded facility. Many were bought and sold by smugglers who operate freely in the lawless areas of the country.

“They flogged me, they slapped me, they beat me while I was on the phone with my mother so she could hear me cry,” said Ishmael Konte, a 25-year-old from Sierra Leone, recounting his time in southern Libya.

Libya, the biggest jumping-off point for migrants trying to reach Europe, is now home to a thriving trade in humans. Unable to pay exorbitant smuggling fees or swindled by traffickers, some of the world’s most desperate people are being held as slaves, tortured or forced into prostitution.

Their deteriorating plight raises questions about European Union agreements to stem the flow of migrants. Under these deals, Libya was promised more than $225 million to enforce stricter border controls and maintain migrant assistance centers that respect “international humanitarian standards.” Last week, Libya’s Western-backed government asked European leaders in Brussels for more money to cope with the crisis.

But instead of getting better treatment, migrants found at sea are being returned to Libya to face more exploitation and violence.

“They are not treated like humans. They are treated like merchandise.” —Ahmed Tabawi Wardako, Libyan tribal leader

Meanwhile, the number of migrants departing from Libya is surging, with more than 70,000 arriving in Italy so far this year, a 28 percent increase over the same period last year. More than 2,000 have drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and the summer peak season for sea crossings is just starting.

To report this article, The Washington Post visited two main government-run detention centers in Tripoli, as well as a third in the coastal city of Zawiyah that is controlled by a militia allegedly involved in human trafficking, according to U.N. investigators. Although the migrants’ accounts corroborate recent reports by human rights groups and aid agencies, they also reveal how much more systematic and clandestine the trade in migrants has become.

E.U. officials are working with international organizations and the Libyan government to address the concerns, spokeswoman Catherine Ray said. “We are aware of the unacceptable conditions in which some migrants are treated, in detention or reception centers in Libya,” she said. “And we do not turn a blind eye to it.”

The desert

For decades, African migrants flocked to this oil-producing country in search of work. Reports of abuse, including slavery-like conditions, by Libyan employers abounded. But the situation worsened after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the toppling of dictator Moammar Gaddafi.

Awash with weapons, the state collapsed. In the chaos, borders and coastlines were left unpatrolled, and crime and trafficking by well-armed militias along migrant routes grew.

Now, human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar business involving countless militias and influential tribes, activists and security officials say. The Western-backed government exerts little authority outside the capital, Tripoli, and infighting is rampant within some of its ministries. It competes with two other governments, and none has real authority in the southern part of the country, where most migrants are smuggled through.

“No one even thinks about making arrests in the south,” Wardako said. “The human traffickers have lots of money. They buy off people, including the police and local officials.”

In March, Mack Williams left his home in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital of Abidjan. He was 29 and unemployed. With money borrowed from relatives, he traveled several days and hundreds of miles by bus to the smuggling town of Agadez in central Niger, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

A recruiter introduced him to a “connection man,” one of the many middlemen on the migrant pipeline to Europe.

For about $600, Williams was transported across the border, through Sabha and the town of Bani Walid, and then to Tripoli. At each stop, another connection man was expected to guide him along — if he survived.

“It’s the road of death,” Williams said, referring to the 1,400-mile stretch between Agadez and Sabha, typically a week-long drive through intense desert heat.

The deaths of migrants along the land route seldom draw much attention. In a rare instance, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in June that 44 migrants, including five children, died of thirst when their vehicle broke down in the Saharan desert. A few weeks later, 51 more were presumed dead after smugglers abandoned them, the agency said.

Other migrants said that when someone fell off a truck, the drivers often left them behind to die in the desert.

Williams, who is tall and slender, was packed into a Toyota pickup truck with two dozen other migrants, “stuck like a piece of fish in the back,” he recalled. Food and water were in short supply. Breaks were infrequent. If the migrants took too long to urinate on the side of the road, the driver and his companion would beat them with a stick and prod them like cattle back into the truck.

“They flogged me, they slapped me, they beat me while I was on the phone with my mother so she could hear me cry.” —Ishmael Konte, 25, of Sierra Leone, recounting his time in Libya

Three days into the journey, as they neared the Libyan border, the traffickers spotted a convoy of troops from Niger and were worried about being caught. They veered off the road and ordered the migrants to get out of the truck and get down — and then sped away.

“They left us in the desert with no water or food,” Williams said.

Two days later, as some of the migrants approached death, another Toyota pickup arrived with a different group of traffickers. None had the same name or contact information Williams was given in Agadez. He understood what had happened.

“If your connection man doesn’t come, it means you’ve been sold,” he said. “Anyone can sell you to another group.”

The connection house

When Ishmael Konte arrived in Sabha, nearly 500 miles south of Tripoli, the traffickers drove directly to a warehouse and sold him to a Libyan.

It was one of numerous “connection houses” where migrants wait while they are moved through the smuggling pipeline.

Konte and the 20 other migrants in the truck with him were put in a tiny cell, where guards — mostly from Niger — beat them with pipes and electric cables for the slightest infraction. Every two days, they were given a bowl of gruel. Other food had to be bought from the guards, Konte said, but most of the migrants had no money.

“We had to drink the water in the toilet,” said Alassana Bah, 34, a soft-voiced teacher from Gambia who lost his left arm in an accident years ago. “Every day, they beat me on the soles of my feet.”

The men were incarcerated for different reasons. Some still owed money for their journey, others had traveled on credit and were now the property of the smugglers. Most, like Konte, said they had paid in full but were tricked by their drivers and sold to the prison’s Libyan owner for as little as $50.

Every morning, the guards would force the migrants to call their relatives back home.

Four days after he arrived, Konte called his mother. As he spoke, a guard whipped him with a thick cable. She could hear his cries.

“People have caught me,” he recalled telling her. “They want $400.”

“Where can I get such money?” she replied. Konte could hear her weeping.

“You have to,” he said. “These people will kill me.”

The threat of death was real. Osama Quaitta, 28, a slim, muscular man from Mali, spent three months in another prison in Sabha. Several migrants in his cell died, he said, after beatings or from poor health and a lack of food.

“All the time, they killed people,” he said.

“We had to drink the water in the toilet. Every day, they beat me on the soles of my feet.” —Alassana Bah, 34, of Gambia

It took Konte’s mother a month to raise the money. She wired it to an associate of the traffickers in Agadez, and Konte was released. For the next few weeks, he worked in Sabha to earn enough to pay for his trip to Tripoli.

Traffickers drove Mohamed Jalloh and 26 others from village to village on the way to Tripoli. Jalloh, a 25-year-old from Guinea, said the group he was in was forced to work on farms and houses for several weeks at a time without pay.

“They were renting us out,” Jalloh said, shaking his head.

Beauty Oriri, 25, was forced to drink her urine after she ran out of water in the desert. Then she was “sold” to a connection house in Tripoli.

What Oriri saw there terrified her.

“They are forcing girls to have sex with men against their will,” the Nigerian hairdresser said. “If you don’t do it, they can kill you. They can lock you up for days. If you don’t do it, you will not eat.”

There are dozens of connection houses in Tripoli, some windowless to prevent detection, security officials say. In most cases, the government “doesn’t know anything about them,” said Capt. Wajdi Muntassar, a police officer who runs a detention center. Migrant boys taken to the houses are forced to sell drugs, he added, and girls are forced into prostitution.

Oriri said the connection men told her she would be forced into prostitution if she couldn’t pay $500. She frantically called her family and friends in Nigeria. Eight days later, the smugglers had the money and she was released, she said.

Most of the other migrant girls and women who traveled with her couldn’t afford to pay. So they had no choice, Oriri said. They received a small cut of what the customers paid, and it would take months to afford the boat fare to Italy.

The detention center

The Libyan coast guard and local fishermen have stopped more than 10,000 migrants this year and sent them back to Libya, according to IOM data. Most have ended up in one of Libya’s 29 official detention centers, which international aid and medical charities visit.

All are woefully underfunded, in part because of militia and government rivalries. Funding has been frozen and bills to feed migrants haven’t been paid in months, Muntassar and two other officials said.

Abdulrazag Shneeti, a spokesman for the government’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration, did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

The Zawiyah facility — known as the al-Nasr detention center — was set up by the al-Nasr Brigade, a militia involved in oil and human smuggling that has links to the coast guard, U.N. investigators said in a report released in June. Christine Petre, an IOM spokeswoman, said the facility is now being run by the Western-backed government, but migrants and coast guard members said the militia and its tribesmen are still in charge.

Migrants sleep and eat on the dirty floors. Lunch is a six-inch loaf of bread. Dinner is a plate of macaroni.

On a recent day, the mattresses had been taken away from a group in a cell as “punishment” for fighting, said Fathi al-Far, the center’s director. Last year, he said, four migrants were killed and a guard was injured in clashes.

Two migrants died of treatable problems in the past two years, Far said. He has been awaiting a water purifier for months. Nearby, an Algerian migrant lay on the floor against a wall, clutching his stomach and writhing in pain. But there was no doctor to help him.

Guards are quick to give beatings, several migrants said.

“It happens,” Far said.

In their report, U.N. investigators described Far as a former army colonel and said that the center is used to sell migrants to other smugglers.

Far acknowledged that smugglers come to the center to take migrants but said he is unable to stop them. Guards or militia members call the migrants’ families to extort cash — if they pay, the migrant is released and put back on a boat to Europe.

“The guards can do anything,” Far said. “They have the keys to the cells.”

Human Rights

Somalia: Satellite imagery reveals devastation amid forced evictions of thousands who fled conflict and drought

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New satellite imagery analysis by Amnesty International gives the first comprehensive view of how thousands of structures, including several schools, were demolished in sudden forced evictions that left more than 4,000 families homeless on the outskirts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in late December.

No warning was given before armed men accompanied bulldozers to raze the sites on 29 and 30 December 2017, according to UNICEF and Save the Children. UN agencies have said the forced evictions left more than 24,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) homeless, including 3,000 children.

Amnesty International’s analysis of satellite images from before, during and after the demolitions clearly shows that thousands of structures were turned to rubble over the course of the two-day operation. A UN humanitarian official said that basic infrastructure including latrines, schools and community centres were destroyed.

“These satellite images give a bird’s-eye view of the shocking scale of these forced evictions that destroyed the possessions, dwellings and livelihoods of thousands of vulnerable families,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

These satellite images give a bird’s-eye view of the shocking scale of these forced evictions that destroyed the possessions, dwellings and livelihoods of thousands of vulnerable families.
Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes

“Forced evictions are always a human rights violation and inevitably put people who are already in a very vulnerable situation at even greater risk. What makes these demolitions particularly cruel is that many of the thousands of people affected had only recently sought protection in Mogadishu after fleeing insecurity, drought and impending famine elsewhere in Somalia.”

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Briefing Room

Somalia: Al-Shabab Demanding Children

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(Nairobi) – The Islamist armed group Al-Shabab has threatened and abducted civilians in Somalia’s Bay region to force communities to hand over their children for indoctrination and military training in recent months.

Since late September 2017, Al-Shabab has ordered elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and communities in rural areas to provide hundreds of children as young as 8 or face attack. The armed group’s increasingly aggressive child recruitment campaign started in mid-2017 with reprisals against communities that refused. In recent months, hundreds of children, many unaccompanied, have fled their homes to escape forced recruitment.

“Al-Shabab’s ruthless recruitment campaign is taking rural children from their parents so they can serve this militant armed group,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To escape that cruel fate, many children have fled school or their homes.”

Over the past decade, Al-Shabab has recruited thousands of children for indoctrination and to become frontline fighters. Since 2015, the armed group has opened several large Islamic religious schools in areas under their control, strengthened indoctrination methods including by bringing in younger children, and pressured teachers to retrain and teach Al-Shabab’s curriculum in schools.

On a recent trip to Baidoa, the capital of Bay region, Human Rights Watch spoke to 15 residents from three districts in Bay region largely under Al-Shabab control – Berdale, Baidoa, and Burhakaba districts – as well as child protection advocates and United Nations officials. The findings match similar trends in other parts of the country since mid-2017.

Village elders said that in September Al-Shabab ordered them to go to Al-Shabab-controlled Bulo Fulay and to hand over dozens of children ages 9 to 15. A resident of Berdale district said: “They said we needed to support their fight. They spoke to us in a very threatening manner. They also said they wanted the keys to our boreholes [watering points]. They kept us for three days. We said we needed to consult with our community. They gave us 10 days.” Two other community residents said that they received threatening calls, including death threats, after the 10 days ran out, but as of late 2017 they had not handed over the children.

Three residents said that in September Al-Shabab fighters forcibly took at least 50 boys and girls from two schools in Burhakaba district and transported them to Bulo Fulay, which witnesses say hosts a number of religious schools and a major training facility. Two weeks later, a large group of armed Al-Shabab fighters with their faces covered returned to the village, entered another local school, and threatened and beat the teacher to hand over children.

“They wanted 25 children ages 8 to 15,” said the teacher, who resisted the order. “They didn’t say why, but we know that it’s because they want to indoctrinate them and then recruit them. After they hit me, some of the children started crying and tried to run out of the classroom. But the fighters were all around. They caned a 7-year-old boy who tried to escape.”

Residents from Berdale district said that in at least four villages, Al-Shabab abducted elders who refused to hand over children. In one village, three elders were released only after they agreed to hand over eight boys from their village.
In May, Al-Shabab pressured elders and other residents in villages in central Somalia’s Mudug and Galgadud regions – from which Ethiopian military forces had recently withdrawn – to hand over children ages 7 to 15. A boy who fled Middle Shabelle region without his parents said: “Our school wasn’t controlled by Al-Shabab. Six weeks ago [late June], they came to our school, took down our names, and took two boys. The teacher managed to escape. They threatened that next time they would come back for us.”

A woman in Burhakaba district said that her four children had witnessed 25 of their classmates being abducted from their school: “The four of them are now so worried about going to school. But if they don’t go to school, and get the fundamentals of the religion, they will go to waste.” Some local religious schools in Bay region are closing fearing further attacks, or because the teachers have fled or been abducted.

Some residents said that their only option to protect their children was to send them, often unaccompanied, to areas outside of Al-Shabab control – a difficult and dangerous journey given the threat of Al-Shabab abduction along the way. Community elders and local monitors said the recruitment campaign has forced approximately 500 people as of October, often unaccompanied children, to flee their homes to Baidoa.

“I heard that children were being captured in neighboring villages and so got very scared,” said a 15-year-old who fled by foot with his 9-year-old brother to the nearest town. “My parents gave me money to come to Baidoa. My brother and I were very scared of being captured along the way, since we went through the bush.”

In August, an official from Adale in Middle Shabelle told the media that his community was hosting approximately 500 children ages 10 to 15 who had fled forced recruitment in Galgudud, Hiran and Middle Shabelle districts. Some children have fled to towns where they have relatives, others end up in dire conditions in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Local groups estimate that over half of the children recently displaced to Baidoa now live in IDP settlements. But unaccompanied children, especially those in informal camps, are unlikely to find security or schooling and may be forced to work to survive.

“The government with UN agency assistance should ensure that displaced children, including those without adult guardians, receive protection and appropriate schooling,” Bader said. “Children should not flee one danger zone for a new one.”

The UN Security Council’s Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) reported that in June, Al-Shabab detained 45 elders in El Bur who refused to provide them with 150 children and only released them on the condition that the children would be handed over. The SEMG found that 300 children were abducted from the area during this period and taken to an Al-Shabab school.

In April Al-Shabab announced over its radio station that it was introducing a new curriculum for primary and secondary schools and warned teachers and schools against “foreign teachings.” A Bay region resident said that Al-Shabab took a dozen teachers for “retraining” around April, and they were only released after paying about US$300 per person. In certain areas, Al-Shabab ordered schools to shut down and communities to send their teachers to Al-Shabab curriculum training seminars, SEMG reported.

Human Rights Watch did not find clear evidence that children abducted in recent drives were taken directly for military training, but interviewees repeatedly raised the concern. The UN monitoring group reported that some of the schools set up by Al-Shabab were linked to military training facilities. Child abductions, notably from schools, and children’s use as fighters by Al-Shabab significantly increased in the second quarter of 2017, the UN monitoring group said. Boys who had been associated with Al-Shabab since late 2015 said that the religious schools and teachers were often used to recruit boys as fighters. These boys said their military training included a mixture of rudimentary weapons training and ideological indoctrination.

The Somali government has taken some steps to protect schools and students, Human Rights Watch said. In 2016 it endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an international commitment by countries to do more to ensure that schools are safe places for children, even during war. Somalia has signed but not yet ratified the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on children in armed conflict, which states that armed groups “should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.”

The government, with the help of international donors, should wherever possible identify Al-Shabab recruitment drives, including their location, scale, and use of educational institutions, that could inform protective measures, Human Rights Watch said. Doing so would also help efforts to assist displaced children, such as addressing their health, shelter, and security needs and providing them free primary education and access to secondary education, as well as appropriate psychosocial support.

“Al-Shabab’s campaign only adds to the horrors of Somalia’s long conflict, both for the children and their families,” said Bader. “The group should immediately stop abducting children and release all children in their ranks. The Somali government should ensure these children are not sent into harm’s way.”

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Human Rights

Not enough being done to shield civilians from violence in Somalia – UN report

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The armed conflict in Somalia continues to exact a heavy toll on civilians, damaging infrastructure and livelihoods, displacing millions of people, and impeding access to humanitarian relief for communities in need, according to a United Nations report launched today in the country’s capital, Mogadishu.

“Ultimately, civilians are paying the price for failure to resolve Somalia’s conflicts through political means,” said the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, Michael Keating. “And parties to the conflict are simply not doing enough to shield civilians from the violence. This is shameful.”

The report – “Protection of Civilians: Building the Foundation for Peace, Security and Human Rights in Somalia” – covers the period from 1 January 2016 to 14 October 2017, and was produced by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), which Mr. Keating also heads.

During this reporting period, UNSOM documented a total of 2,078 civilian deaths and 2,507 injuries, with 60 per cent of the casualties attributed to Al Shabaab militants, 13 per cent to clan militias, 11 per cent to State actors, including the army and the police, four per cent to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), and 12 per cent to unidentified or undetermined attackers.

Civilians were the victims of unlawful attacks – by being directly targeted and through the use of indiscriminate bomb and suicide attacks – by non-State groups. Such attacks, which are prohibited under international human rights and humanitarian laws, are, in most cases, likely to constitute war crimes, and it is imperative that perpetrators are identified and held accountable, the report notes.
The worst incident on a single day was the twin bomb blasts in Mogadishu on 14 October, attributed to Al-Shabaab by Somali government officials and in which at least 512 people are officially recorded to have died as of 1 December, along with 316 injured. The attack received widespread condemnation, including from UNSOM and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“This barbaric act was the deadliest attack with an improved explosive device in Somalia’s history and surely one of the worst ever on the continent, if not the world,” said Special Representative Keating at the report’s launch. “Sadly, its impact will be felt for a long time.”

A significant number of recorded civilian casualties – 251 killed and 343 injured – was attributed to clan militias, in areas where federal or state security forces are largely absent. “The drought has intensified clan conflict due to competition over resources. These conflicts are exploited by anti-government elements to further destabilize areas, diminish prospects for lasting peace and weaken civilian protection,” the report states.

Casualties attributed to State actors and AMISOM

It goes on to note that the number of casualties attributed to the Somali National Army and Police, as well as to AMISOM, was significantly smaller than those attributed to Al Shabaab militants.

“Nevertheless, such casualties are of utmost concern as they undermine the Somali population’s trust in the Government and the international community, which in turn expands the space in which anti-government elements continue to operate,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

“While achieving the balance between human rights and security is challenging,” he added, “the respect of human rights and the protection of civilians are essential as the foundation of a strong, legitimate State that works for the benefit of all its people.”

Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency routinely disregards international human rights law when carrying out arrests and detentions, according to the report, which adds that journalists and people suspected of belonging to Al Shabaab are often detained without charge.

The report also flags that information on the conditions of people living under Al Shabaab control is scant. Verifying human rights violations and abuses in those areas remains problematic due to the lack of access and fear of reprisals.

Somalia has been plagued by armed violence for decades, as well as poverty, marginalization, natural hazards, insecurity and political instability.

UNSOM is working with the East African country’s authorities to support national reconciliation, provide strategic and policy advice on various aspects of peacebuilding and state-building, monitor and report on the human rights situation, and help coordinate the efforts of the international community.

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