Migrants recall their harrowing inhumane treatment while in Libya

By Sami Zaptia. 


Senegalese migrants departing to Senegal from Libya in January (IOM).

London, 22 August 2016:

The IOM reportss that over the past five years it has facilitated the voluntary return of thousands of migrants from Libya back to their countries of origin. Following the outbreak of the Libyan conflict in February 2011, it has repatriated over 200,000 migrants fleeing the violence to countries around the world, in what was one of the largest and most complex evacuation and repatriation operations on record.

The IOM says repatriations continue today. Most of those repatriated are of Sub-Saharan Africans trying to reach Europe, but ending up in Libyan detention centres. Migrants Lamine and Salma recount their Libya stories.

Twenty-four-year-old Lamine (not real name), a migrant from Tambacounda, Senegal, who tried to make it to Europe, told his harrowing story to the IOM’s Cecilia Mann.

‘‘The insecurity (in Tripoli) was overwhelming. People would deliberately hit us with their cars because we were black. We would be searched anytime we were in public. Not having anything of value on oneself was worse than being robbed as it ensured a hefty beating at best. A few days in, I was captured and locked in a toilet stall for fifteen days by Nigerien, Ghanaian and Libyan traffickers. Sometimes I’d receive some water and a biscuit.

After two weeks I was moved to a 6 story detention centre with hundreds of others like me. One evening, as we were attempting to get some semblance of sleep, Libyan police officers attacked us. Seven of my friends were killed before my eyes, and that was only on my floor.

A man who had become a companion during our imprisonment was badly wounded and the authorities refused to provide medical attention. Some friends and I precariously sewed the oozing wound shut and put together what meager funds we had remaining to buy him passage back to Nigeria where he could be returned to his home-town in Guinea-Bissau.

It was at this moment that I decided, I had lost too much. I had seen too much. I called home for news of my friends who I had set out with. Three had been killed in Libya and the remaining two had drowned on the way to Italy.

I was going home.

All in all, I spent 25 days in Tripoli without work. But we blacks help each other. I was able to scrape enough together to cross back into Algeria. I heard that the Malian embassy in Algiers facilitated cash transfers, so I went back to work to send some money home to my family.

One evening, when I was close to having saved enough to continue my return trip, the police found me in the makeshift shelter I was sleeping in. They searched me and asked me where I had gotten the cash I was hiding. I gave them the name of my boss, who denied my employment and called me a thief. The police took everything and locked me up.

Soon after, I was released and I went back to work. A month later, I took the 60,000 CFA I had managed to save and headed back to Niger. My luck had clearly shifted through the course of the journey. Here again the border police took everything. I was left, alone, with nothing. I felt I had no other options left.

By God’s grace, I witnessed my second act of kindness, here on this desolate border. A Nigerien police officer took pity on me and he told me again what I had heard months before, that IOM in Niger could help me get home. He called a motor taxi to take me to the office and paid the fare.

Now, 22 days later, I am sitting in the waiting room at Léopold-Sédar-Senghor airport, back in Dakar. I’m home but I don’t know exactly what I am going to do. I don’t have much choice. Perhaps I will go back to being a mason.

I don’t know if Europe is really a paradise or not. But I know that if reaching that paradise means losing what I lost, suffering what I suffered, seeing what I saw, enduring what I endured, then I would much rather be home in Tambacounda.

Salma (not real name), on the other hand, was 16 years old when she travelled to Libya with the assistance of a relative. She left her life and family at home – a small village in Ethiopia – to try to find work abroad. During the first six months Salma worked and lived at the house of her employer.

She communicated regularly with her family, had her own personal space and could practice her faith freely. However, when the conflict in Libya escalated and her employer decided to leave the country, Salma’s life changed dramatically. She was left behind with one of the employers’ relatives.

She cleaned and cooked from six o’clock in the morning until the late hours of the day. For four months she worked without receiving a salary or being allowed to call her family. She had limited access to food and water.

Even worse was to follow when one day, her new employer kicked her out of the house without any prior warning. With nowhere to go and with nothing to eat, Salma tried to survive on the tough streets of Tripoli. She was eventually found by the Libyan Red Crescent.

Traumatized by her experiences on the streets, Salma had difficulty eating and drinking and the sight of a man made her burst into tears.

It took a long time for the people who were trying to help her to gain her trust. But when IOM found a Libyan host family that already hosted two other Ethiopian nationals, Salma’s condition slowly began to improve.

Salma also started receiving psychosocial support and finally was – with IOM assistance – able to return to Ethiopia where she was admitted to a shelter for victims of trafficking.

Salma is just one of many victims of human trafficking in Libya, which remains a major destination for migrants.

Many migrants come to Libya from African countries seeking better work and living conditions. Many others hope to continue on to Europe. Many migrants are smuggled into the country and along the way many become victims of trafficking.

So far in 2016, IOM Libya has been alerted to over 50 cases of trafficking –  mostly single women and male labourers.

IOM Libya has been working to identify and support more safe shelters for victims and community volunteers who can host and help them.

Despite the many challenges, the referral system has steadily become more effective this year, with Libyans increasingly aware and engaged. The help of local NGOs has also made it easier to identify victims in need of help.

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