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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

Somaliland poet jailed for three years in crackdown on writers

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A poet has been sentenced to three years in prison in Somaliland as part of a wide-ranging crackdown against activists and writers.

Naima Abwaan Qorane, 27, was jailed on Sunday for “anti-national activity of a citizen and bringing the nation or state in contempt”.

Prosecutors said she had expressed opinions on social media that undermined the semi-autonomous state’s claim to full independence.

In a second case on Monday, the same court sentenced Mohamed Kayse Mohamoud, a 31-year-old author, to 18 months in prison on charges of “offending the honour of the president.”

The case against Mohamoud was based on a Facebook post saying the “president is a local”, according to the charge sheet seen by activists.

It was offensive to the president because the president was “a national president” and not a local official, the presiding judge said.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared unilateral independence from Somalia in 1991 as the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed, but has not been recognised as a fully autonomous state by the international community.

It is effectively self-governing with its own elections, constitution, courts and currency. President Muse Bihi Abdi was elected last year.

Since December there has been a series of arrests and detentions of activists, bloggers and writers. Local human rights workers say at least 12 journalists have been detained, some for up to three weeks.

“The detention of my client was illegal, the charges made against her are politically motivated and the sentence is unfair,” Qorane’s lawyer, Mubarik Abdi Ismail, said. “The the judge was not independent and therefore he could not deliver a free trial.”

He said the poet had been threatened during her interrogation. “On one night while Naima Qorane was in [police] detention in Hargeisa, two hooded men entered her cell and threatened that they will rape her if she would not provide passwords of her mobile phone and her social media pages particularly her Facebook. They took all passwords,” he said.

“In March, two [police] and intelligence officers came to Qorane’s cell and demanded her to tell everything and confess her crimes … they threatened that they will bring very strong men who would rape her, and then that they would kill her and dump her body into unknown place. They returned the second night and put a loaded pistol of her forehead and threatened that was her last minute in life.”

Qorane was also denied visits from her family for a number of weeks after her father spoke to the media and, though held for political offences, she was not separated from other detainees. She is now being held in Gabiley women’s prison.

Ahmed Hussein Qorane, Naima’s father, said he was given only limited access to visit his daughter and was not surprised by the sentence. “My daughter is innocent … She has nothing to do with what they alleged. She must be released without condition. They did not allow her to see a doctor. She has bad toothache. They beat her in the detention and her left knee is swollen while she has an injury on her thumb,” he said.

Much of Qorane’s poetry evokes the lost unity of Somalia, but does not explicitly mention Somaliland or its future, supporters say. She read her works at a TEDx conference in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, last year.

Guleid Ahmed Jama, the chair of the Human Rights Centre-Hargeisa Somaliland, said the imprisonment of Qorane and Mahamoud were contrary to the constitution.

“This shows that the judiciary is being used to suppress critical voices. We are very concerned about the judiciary’s acts that are putting people behind bars for expressing their opinion. Somaliland is a democracy. We have a very good constitution. The government needs to respect that constitution,” he said.

Qorane said in 2016 that she had received death threats and been warned to leave Somaliland. “If it happens – though I am not expecting it – jail was built for people not for animals … I will be released one day and the prison experience is not going to change my views,” she said in a local media interview.

There has been no official statement from the Somaliland authorities.

Said Abdi Hassan, an activist in Somaliland, said Qorane’s sentence was unfair. “She was detained because of her views which everybody has the right to express without fear,” he said. “How can a country claim to be seeking recognition while they disregard rights of the people.

“But we want to tell Naima that even if she is jailed forever, her views will be active. She is a role model for many of our youth by calling for unity and against tribalism.”

Officials contacted in Somaliland said they were unable to comment on the case.

Additional reporting by Abdalle Ahmed Mumin

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Somaliland: Female poet jailed over unity calls

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MIDDLE EAST MONITOR — A court in Somaliland has sentenced a female poet to three-years in jail after she called for unity with Somalia amid ongoing regional tensions, Garowe Online reported yesterday.

Naciima Abwaan Qorane was arrested in January at Igal International Airport upon her return from Somalia’s capital Mogadishu where prosecutors claimed she had recited poetry calling for unity.

Qorane was charged by police in Somaliland with “anti-national activity and violating the sovereignty and succession of Somaliland”. Somaliland’s prosecution claimed that Qorane called Somaliland a “region” and “insulted and defamed” the government.

Read: Somalia’s quandary with UAE: A port in Somaliland

“We are very concerned about the conviction and sentence of Naima. Freedom of expression is enshrined and protected by the Constitution of Somaliland,” Guled Ahmed Jama, the director of Human Rights Centre, said.

Regional tension
A breakaway, semi-desert territory on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991.

In a recent struggle for power between the two states, Somalia rejected a $422 million tripartite port agreement between Ethiopia, Somaliland and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) logistics port company DP World as “null and void”.

Tensions escalated when the UAE went ahead with the port deal despite strong opposition. Somalia’s members of parliament voted for a law to officially ban DP World last month.

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Refugees in Indonesia selling sex to survive

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AAP — Homeless mother-of-three, Nimo, fled to Indonesia from Somalia after Islamists killed her family, but with prostitution as the only way to survive, she tearily says her life in Jakarta is “much harder” than her war-torn homeland.

Indonesia has traditionally been a transit nation for asylum seekers but in recent months the UNHCR has been meeting with refugees to tell them they’ll probably never be resettled somewhere else.

That means people such as Nimo face the prospect of spending much longer in the country than they first anticipated. And, for many women, it means working as they’d never imagined – in the sex trade.

Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre spokesman Daniel Webb says the suffering of refugees on our Australia’s doorstep exposes the cruelty of the government’s obsession with so-called deterrence.

“The people our government secretly turns back or frightens away don’t just vanish off the face of the earth – they’re being forced to suffer elsewhere,” he tells AAP.

Nimo, a 32-year-old Somalian refugee, was forced into hiding after the local refugee community discovered she was working as a prostitute.

Some in the conservative Muslim neighbourhood threatened her harm for betraying Islam’s teachings.

The homeless mother says she’s ashamed of the work and is often beaten by men.

“I would like to stop but I have no options,” Nimo tells AAP.

“If I don’t there will be no food for my family.”

Nimo has fallen through the aid safety net.

Some two-thirds of the 13,800 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia are dependent on aid or live in government-run immigration detention centres, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

They’re not allowed to work or access social security.

Many sleep in the streets near Jakarta’s already-full immigration detention centre or queue – day after day – at the UNHCR office seeking help.

Others drift from one boarding house to the next begging for food. Some sleep on the steps of a local mosque.

“I could never have imagined this life before,” Nimo says. “There is no hope. I have children and I am a prostitute. This is a really bad life. It’s much harder than Somalia.”

Nimo fled Somalia with her children after Islamists stoned her younger sister to death and then turned their guns on the rest of her family. She was shot during one attack.

Her 10-day journey through Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, and across the Malacca Strait, ended after a two-day bus ride to the Indonesian capital in 2015.

Her appeals for help from NGOs and the UNHCR have been refused.

During a recent interview – to discuss her sex work – no assistance was offered. Instead, she was lectured about breaking local laws, and the health risks of prostitution.

UNHCR Indonesia representative Thomas Vargas says recent humanitarian emergencies – such the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh – mean money earmarked for Indonesia is being redirected.

“When there are those types of flashpoints, that’s where the limited funding the UNHCR has globally goes,” he tells AAP.

For refugees in Indonesia, aid is now even harder to come by.

“You have limited funding and you have to help the neediest. That’s the harsh reality. It’s a very tough situation,” Vargas says.

At night refugee women living on the street risk sexual violence.

Refugee Suad, 27, lives in a tight network of laneways near Jakarta’s central shopping district.

The Somalian says men regularly try to force refugee women to go with them for sex.

“When we sleep on the street, West African businessman come to this area. They threaten us and touch us and we are powerless to stop them,” she tells AAP.

“If you don’t say yes they say they can beat you. But I say no, I’m a Muslim, I can’t do it. I am hungry and I want money, but I can’t do that.”

Fear of being labelled a prostitute or shunned causes many women to hide their abuse.

Suad’s family was killed by a bomb in Mogadishu. She says she was abducted, raped and held captive by militants.

After she escaped a local mosque raised the money needed to pay people smugglers.

Suad says in Somalia rape victims are often accused of being prostitutes and are sent away so as not to shame their family or community.

But now, out of desperation, she’s now considering going with men.

“When you don’t have food, when you don’t have shelter, life becomes very hard and that is the only option,” she says.

Mr Vargas says “survival sex” is common among refugees who don’t receive aid or have family to protect them.

“When you are not able to make a living you resort, unfortunately, to these types of survival techniques and that’s a risk refugees have here,” he admits.

Asylum seekers and refugees across the archipelago are protesting their treatment.

But the fact is the UNHCR deals with 65.6 million refugees and forcibly displaced people globally.

The crisis is unlike any seen since World War II, according to Mr Vargas. It’s stretched aid budgets and led to tougher immigration policies in key resettlement nations.

US President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and Australia’s policy of refusing refugees from Indonesia if they arrived after mid-2014 are clear examples, he says.

It’s created “unpredictability in the (resettlement) system” and left refugees stranded.

Immigration policies based on deterrence and criminalisation – rather than protection and human rights – came under the spotlight at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March.

UN special rapporteur Nils Melzer says government policies – rather than criminal activity, corruption and dangerous travel – are the major cause of abuses inflicted on refugees.

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