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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.”

Diaspora

Sadistic people smuggler who raped and murdered migrants in Libyan desert sentenced to life in prison

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Telegraph — An Italian court has sentenced to life imprisonment a sadistic people smuggler who raped, tortured and murdered migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa.

Osman Matammud, 22, from Somalia, was found guilty of multiple counts of murder, abduction for ransom and sexual violence against young women and girls.

Matammud was arrested a year ago after being recognised by fellow Somalis in a migrant reception centre in Milan.

He was almost lynched before police stepped in and arrested him.

He had crossed the Mediterranean in a boat full of migrants and had tried to pass himself off as an asylum-seeker.

He was accused of the horrific abuse of migrants at a squalid detention camp at Bani Walid in the Libyan desert, 100 miles south-east of Tripoli, with prosecutors comparing him to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

During his trial in Milan, 17 witnesses told the court how they had been raped, beaten or tortured by Matammud. He will spend the first three years of his incarceration in solitary confinement.
He was sentenced after a five-hour deliberation by the Court of Assizes in Milan.

He had denied all the charges and his lawyer said he would appeal the verdict. His trial revealed the squalid conditions and violent abuse endured by migrants as they try to cross the Sahara on their way to the coast of Libya, from where they pay smugglers to send them in boats towards Italy.

“I’m not Somali, I’m not Muslim – I’m your boss,” he allegedly told migrants and refugees when they arrived at the camp.

Several Somali women told investigators in Italy that they had been repeatedly raped by Matammud, who is from Mogadishu. The violence was in part to exert pressure on their families to pay more money for their passage across the Mediterranean.

Matammud would allegedly place plastic bags on the backs of migrants and set them alight so that molten plastic blistered their skin.

One teenage girl told Milan prosecutors: “The first night, he came into the hangar, he grabbed me and he ripped off my clothes in front of everyone. He penetrated me. I fainted but when I came to, there was blood everywhere. I was raped many times by him – every night.”

“In a career spanning 40 years, I’ve never come across such horrors. And what is going on in Bani Walid is going on in all the transit camps,” said chief prosecutor Ilda Boccassini, who has spent much of her career fighting the Mafia.

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Human Rights

European Commission seeks to resettle 50,000 refugees

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The European Commission has unveiled a new plan that would allow for 50,000 refugees – mostly from a host of African countries – to be resettled to Europe over the next two years.

The proposal on Wednesday by the European Union’s executive branch involves admitting asylum seekers under the bloc’s resettlement programme, which was introduced at the height of a major refugee crisis in 2015.

“We need to open real alternatives to taking perilous irregular journeys,” European Union Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference in Brussels.

The commission said that it had set aside 500 million euros ($590m) to support the resettlement effort. Member states will be free to participate in the scheme on a voluntary basis.

The EU’s executive arm said that while resettlement from Turkey and the Middle East is to continue, an increased focus should be put on resettling vulnerable people from Libya, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, Chad and Ethiopia.

“Europe has to show that it is ready to share responsibility with third countries, notably in Africa. People who are in genuine need of protection should not risk their lives or depend on smugglers,” Avramopoulos said.

23,000 people resettled

Libya is the main jumping-off point for many people willing to brave potentially dangerous sea journeys across the Mediterranean in search of better lives in Europe. Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Niger – one of the main migrant transit countries in Africa – all border Libya.

Resettlement is managed by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which selects refugees who have a continued need for international protection.

European countries are individually responsible for deciding on resettlement numbers so they cannot be legally bound by Brussels to take more people in.

Last year, the main beneficiaries of UNHCR-facilitated resettlement programmes were refugees from Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Somalia.

The EU has already resettled 23,000 people from refugee camps in countries outside the EU under the scheme, mainly Turkey and Jordan, which were overwhelmed with people fleeing the war in Syria.

The resettlement programme is different from the EU’s compulsory refugee quotas, which involved moving asylum seekers who had already reached Italy and Greece to other EU countries.

The latter scheme, which ended on Wednesday, saw just 29,000 people out of a planned 160,000 shared out around EU states to ease the pressure on the overstretched Greek and Italian authorities.

The commission also said it wants to ensure that those not permitted to stay in Europe are returned to their home countries more quickly.

“We have to be clear and brutally honest, people who have no right to stay in Europe must be returned,” Avramopoulos said.

He also said that the commission would propose a temporary extension to allow countries such as Germany, Austria, Denmark and non-EU country Norway to keep systematic ID checks in place.

Schengen border controls

Separately, the EU also released plans on Wednesday to allow countries in the passport-free Schengen area to reintroduce border controls for security reasons for up to three years.

Countries in the 26-country Schengen travel area can currently reintroduce frontier checks for six months for security reasons, and two years if that is combined with a threat to borders.

“Under today’s proposals, member states will also be able to exceptionally prolong controls if the same threat persists,” the commission said in a statement.

Avramopoulos however said this should be a “last resort”, and that keeping the Schengen area open for travel should be a priority.

Several countries, including France and Germany, have called for the extension after a series of attacks. France reinstated the checks after the November 2015 Paris attacks.

Border checks introduced by Germany, Denmark, Austria, Sweden and Norway in May 2016 to deal with a huge influx of refugees and migrants into Europe from Syria and North Africa are set to expire in November.

The reintroduction of so many checks raised concerns about the collapse of the Schengen zone, seen by many in Europe as a symbol of unity and freedom.

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Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Refugees Unsafe in Kenya and Elsewhere

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“Wako” fled Ethiopia for Kenya in 2012, after his release from prison. He had been locked up for two years after campaigning for the Oromo People’s Congress, an opposition party that has often been targeted by the government.

In Kenya, he hoped to be safe. But six months later Ethiopian officials kidnapped him in Nairobi and brought him to Ethiopia’s notorious Ziway prison, where he was mistreated and tortured, before being released. He fled to Kenya a second time.

When I spoke to him in Kenya, he said he planned to travel overland to South Africa. He hoped for better safety there.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of harassment and threats against Ethiopian asylum seekers in Kenya and elsewhere since 2010. In a recent letter to the Kenyan police, to which they have not responded, we describe how asylum seekers were assaulted, detained, and interrogated before Ethiopian officials in Nairobi, and forced to return to Ethiopia. Many also received threatening phone calls and text messages from Kenyan and Ethiopian phone numbers.

In private, some Kenyan police told us that Ethiopian Embassy officials in Nairobi have offered them cash to arrest Ethiopians. Ethiopian refugees said Ethiopian officials tried to recruit them to inform on others, promising land, protection, money, and resettlement to the US or elsewhere.

Threats to fleeing Ethiopians are not limited to Kenya. Community leaders, social media activists, opposition politicians, and refugee protection workers have been harassed in other countries. Human Rights Watch has documented abductions of Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers from Uganda, Sudan, Djibouti, and elsewhere.

High-profile opposition figures with foreign citizenship have also been handed to Ethiopian authorities without a legal process, including a British citizen detained in Yemen, a Norwegian citizen in South Sudan, and a Somali national handed over last month by Somalia’s government.

In Somaliland, we recently spoke to 10 asylum seekers who were forced back to Ethiopia during one of the frequent roundups of Oromo in Somaliland. Eight said they were tortured upon their return to Ethiopia. Many described harassment from Ethiopian embassy officials and indifference from the UN refugee agency.

All this creates a climate of fear and mistrust amongst Ethiopian refugees, preventing them from living normal lives, going to working or even applying for asylum.

The UN refugee agency and host countries should work harder to ensure Ethiopians fleeing torture and persecution can safely access asylum processes and be safe from the long reach of Ethiopian officials.

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