In mid-February, during the raid of a suspected trafficker’s warehouse in Tazerbu, southeast Libya, the Kufra branch of the Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) found 231 immigrants crammed into the building – including 80 children.
The children ranged in age from five to 14, and came from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, says Major Muhammad Fadil, who heads DCIM’s Kufra branch. The raid followed intel received from locals about the warehouse in August 2022.
“During the raid, we saw marks of torture on the children – their bodies showed burns and marks from beatings by water hoses and sharp instruments,” said Fadil.
The horror didn’t end there. Thirty-five of those who had been trapped in the warehouse died soon after their release, including 10 children, as a result of torture they had endured or diseases contracted, said Ali Aknashi, head of the doctors’ team in Kufra detention centre where the migrants were taken and treated.
Many of the migrants, including 70 children, had contracted tuberculosis (TB) and all were also suffering malnutrition and wasting. He says two children were in advanced stages of TB – one was a 14-year old Ethiopian girl, who is currently being treated at Kufra hospital but isn’t expected to live because she received treatment too late.
Torture in smugglers’ warehouses
Human smugglers are gathering migrants and detaining them in warehouses scattered across the regions of Tajarhi, Traghan, Ash Shwayrif, Nasmah, Bani Walid, and Ajaylat. The migrants are then transferred to the northwest, where departure points for Europe dot the coast, according to Muhammad Al-Saidi Ibrahim, an investigator with one of DCIM’s desert patrol teams.
He took part in three warehouse raids in Nasmah, Ash Shwayrif and Bani Walid between February 2019 and June 2022, and said that they found children from Niger, Somalia, Eritrea, Chad, and Sudan being kept in warehouses.
In his experience, the majority of those tortured are from African countries, and he thinks this is because these countries don’t pursue the cases of their citizens and are reluctant to cooperate on issues around migrants.
The patrol that Ibrahim works in is tasked with tracking smuggling operations taking place on the desert road that runs from Ash Shwayrif in western Libya to Bani Walid and passes through Nasmah.
These patrols were formed in 2018, and he is aware of 17 warehouse raids in which 650 migrants, including 50 children, were found. His role is to interview those found by the patrols before they are taken to detention centres.
False promises lead to rising child migration
Migrants’ testimonies indicate that most are in direct contact with people smugglers in their countries of origin, and are encouraged to embark on the journey, reassured that their passage to northern Libya and on to Europe will be facilitated.
However, when they pass the Libyan border, the migrants find themselves packed into warehouses like cargo after the original smuggler sells them on to smugglers inside Libya.
Fadil explains that other migrants travel with children who are either their own or from the same region. Mahmoud Alsinini, a paramedic at the Ain Zara detention centre, says the phenomenon of families migrating with their children, or accompanying children of other families, has become more common since 2017.
“When migrants are asked why they brought their families, children and the children of other families, they say that intermediaries and smugglers back home showed them photos of families who had made it to Europe,” explained Fadil, a false promise that gives families suffering grinding poverty and joblessness in their home countries the hope of a better future.
A map of Libya shows the major locations for human trafficking and detention centres. [The New Arab]
“Whoever can keep paying will be taken by another group of smugglers, and continue to be transported towards the smuggling sites scattered on the northern Libyan coast, but those who can’t will be confined in the last warehouse they reach before they are unable to keep paying. This is where the torture starts – pictures are sent showing they are being tortured to their families in order to blackmail them,” Fadil added.
He says the migrants they spoke to in Tazerbu confirmed that traffickers were filming children being tortured and sending the videos to their families. It was clear that the smugglers saw this as an effective way to force swift payment of the ransom money by families.
Inside the smugglers’ warehouses
Nafisa Leeka, 23, is from Dirkou in Niger. She arrived at Ain Zara detention centre in Tripoli on 11 February 2021, having travelled with her husband, two children, and eight other families with a smuggler to Tajarhi, then Traghen, before ending up in Bani Walid. There, the smuggler handed them over to another one, who locked them in a warehouse for eight months.
Tragically, during their incarceration, her three-month-old daughter died due to the appalling conditions in the warehouse. They were stored like goods in a cement brick room with an iron door, and given only a small portion of bread and cheese per day. Armed guards manned the door threatening anyone who might think of leaving or rebelling, said Leeka.
Smugglers cram as many people as they can into these warehouses, says Ibrahim, mentioning a raid in Ash Shwayrif where they found sixty immigrants squeezed into a six -by-eight metre room.
“They cram people into cramped spaces, even if there are larger ones available, as an additional form of torture,” Ibrahim said.
Alsinini says children arrive in the detention centres with their mothers or sometimes unaccompanied. Of the latter, he says there are two groups; those under ten, whose family members have died during the journey or confinement, sometimes due to torture, and those who are a bit older whose families entrust them to other migrating families so that they can find work in Libya, before making their way to Europe to work and send money back to their families.
Detention centres: Inside and outside state control
Migrants who are released from warehouses are taken to detention centres, according to Fadil. Initially they are taken to local ones but then transferred to others in Tripoli where the Libyan authorities coordinate with the UN to deport them back to their home countries. They can spend years in the centres.
There are 22 official detention centres distributed in various cities across the country, and three outside state control, says Ahmed Hamza, chair of the National Human Rights Committee. He says the latter three are in Tajoura in east Tripoli, Al Mayah just west of Tripoli, and Sabha in southern Libya.
These three detention centres are run by armed militias: the Tajoura centre is under the control of a militia called Rahbat al-Duru’, Al Mayah is under the control of Jihaz Da’m Al-Istiqrar, and the Sabha centre is under the control of militia 115, a faction of the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade which is affiliated to Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
GNU demands international support
Fadil calls on Libya’s internationally recognised government, the Government of National Unity (GNU), to urgently extend increased support to the Kufra detention centre so that detainees can access physical and psychological healthcare and adequate food.
Meanwhile, Hamza and Abu Sumait are calling for international support to be extended to the centres in the form of UN-supervised medical teams and assistance with deportation procedures so more people can be removed to their home countries more quickly.
On 23 November 2022, the first deportation by land took place with 210 migrants transported to Sudan, Chad, and Egypt. This followed the GNU’s decision in early 2022 to stop deportation flights which had started in 2017 due to the high financial costs, says Abu Sumait, who points out that the UN was helping facilitate the process of migrant returns from Libya to their home countries without providing any assistance for the cost of flights.
However, Abu Sumait warned that, “aside from deportations, the international community needs to forge a radical solution to the migration phenomenon, by pushing for positive, structural transformation in migrants’ home countries, so that they aren’t forced to leave and risk their lives to escape the misery and destitution so many are suffering back home”.
“Without this change, migrants will set out on these same journeys again and again,” he said.