North African Immigrants
November 21st, 2020
By: Aseel Elgarni
Over the last decade, the abuse of migrants and refugees travelling along the Central Mediterranean Route has destroyed and disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of people. This route is a sea journey from North Africa to Italy. People who embark on this journey face a tireless trip across the Sahara Desert, driven by promises of work and a better life in Europe. Their dreams of a better life are quickly crushed as they realize the chances of their survival lie in the hands of militias, smugglers, traffickers, and pure luck. A report comprising the stories of the death, violence, and abuse faced by refugees was completed in a collaboration between the Danish Refugee Council’s Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) and The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). As the testimonies in the report show, the Central Mediterranean route to Libya is “one of the deadliest land crossings in the world”, and over 14,000 people have lost their lives on this journey since 2015. From January to June 2020, at least 68 refugees and migrants are known to have died along this route. Normally, before they even reach the sea they are subjected to excruciating violence repeatedly along this route. The refugees also usually cross to Europe in overcrowded boats that are not nearly large enough to take on the merciless sea. By taking their chances, they are essentially playing Russian Roulette; pulling the trigger and hoping no bullet comes out.
To cross the desert along the North African stretch, refugees are entirely dependent on smugglers. Some of the refugees are held in Libya by smugglers, and this can last a duration of over two years. The journey to Libya generally consists of overpacked pickup trucks travelling dangerously fast and changing their routes in order to avoid detection. They then arrive in the border regions where they are handed off to Libyan smugglers. Some are smuggled north to Tripoli and the coast, sometimes stopping in Bani Walid and Ash Shwayrif, areas known as ‘smuggler hubs.’ Others stop or are held in southern Libya, in the towns of Sabha, Qatrun, or Kufra. According to the report, in 2019, 7,450 refugees arrived in Italy and Malta from Libya; 5400 arriving as of June the following year. The report goes on to explain that approximately a quarter of those who crossed the sea to Europe were mostly unaccompanied children. Sudanese nationals, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Moroccans, Malians, and Eritreans made up the largest groups leaving Libya. 14,300 people were disembarked in Libya between January 2019 and June 2020 due to being intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard.
Some of the major abuses the migrants and refugees continue to face include death, sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking, severe physical abuse, and kidnapping for ransom. The exact scale of deaths that occur all throughout the route is unknown as most of the deaths remain unrecorded. Through data published by the International Organization for Immigrants, and extracted by 4mi monitors (field monitors situated along frequently used routes and in major migratory hubs), it is estimated that around 1,750 may have died during the journey across the desert between 2018 and 2019 (though the actual figure is likely higher). Furthermore, around 1,830 people were reported to have died at sea after leaving Libya (since June of this year, approximately 136 people). The context of these deaths vary from people who have been reported dying while crossing the desert - as a result of the brutality of the drivers and smugglers - or in captivity or detention in Libya.
“The reckless and careless driving of Hilux drivers or smugglers in the desert are a major cause of the death of many migrants who unfortunately died along the journey...And their careless driving led to the death of one of the men who fell while the vehicle was at high speed. And his body was buried in the desert by the driver." - [Nigerian man interviewed by MMC in December 2019]
The UNHCR has received multiple testimonies about the sexual and gender-based violence faced by migrants and refugees at multiple stages of their journey, affecting both genders, regardless of age. A report by the Libya Gender-Based Violence Area of Responsibility stated that, “Sexual violence is used for extortion, subjugation, punishment, and entertainment, and frequently involves elements of profound cruelty and psychological torture...Men and boys are forced to witness sexual violence against women and girls (including lethal rape with objects) in official and unofficial centres of captivity and in the desert. It is frequently mentioned that men and boys are forced to rape women and girls, including family members. Women are also forced to perpetrate sexual violence against refugee and migrant men and boys. Much of this violence is carried out in public or filmed for humiliation and/or extortion purposes.” The refugees and migrants fleeing from their countries face these horrifying experiences, no doubt extending them to years of PTSD and trauma, all for a better chance at life for themselves and their children.
“Bani Walid was even worse. They constantly tortured and punished my husband. I was raped again. They had no contraception, so they used plastic bags. Again, I became pregnant and again I lost my baby.” - [Somali woman, evacuated from Libya by UNHCR, 2019]
Victims of human trafficking are not likely to come forward due to the stigma and vulnerability surrounding their situations. It is still believed that forced labour and trafficking for sexual exploitation takes place along the route. In 2019, authorities in Africa and Europe were able to make numerous arrests and free Nigerian women and other West African victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. In some cases, smuggling may turn into trafficking. For example, if a refugee or migrant cannot pay the smugglers on arrival in Libya, they are instead sold for labour or sexual exploitation, or even held in debt bondage. The report states that some may negotiate to work for the smugglers in order to pay off their debt, though they are highly likely to fall victim to trafficking. Some people are also deceived by smugglers and held for ransom or sold for labour and sexual exploitation. Furthermore, kidnapping for ransom is believed to remain common on the route.
Between 2018 and 2019, Territorial Commissions in Italy (authorities that process asylum applications) referred around 10,000 victims of trafficking to specialist organizations. Many of these reports include details accounting terrifying experiences of abuse, forced labour, and starvation taking place in Hajar near Khartoum, as well as Bani Walid.
“The woman that took us out of Nigeria was introduced to me by a friend. She told me about the woman and explained that she would like to take some girls… that she needs some girls to take to Europe and that if interested, we should let her know. We were eight so she took us all. She said we would be going to work in Europe. She didn’t tell us the nature of the work, but we were eager to leave Nigeria because of the situation of the country…As we reached Libya, the woman said that we had to work a bit before proceeding to the crossing, since the road wasn’t clear. I asked what the work would be and she said connection work [sex work]. Then I started crying, a friend of mine and I refused to do it. They started to beat us saying we must do it. That’s the scar on my face. They beat us and said we must do it.” - [A Nigerian woman interviewed by Telling the Real Story, 2019]
Refugees and migrants are also detained on their journey to Europe. According to UNHCR Libya, as of June 2020, around 2,500 refugees and migrants remained in official detention centers. However, multiple reports have expressed concern over food shortages, overcrowding, poor hygiene conditions, lack of consistency in medical assistance, reports of abuse, forced labour, and missing people from detention centers. Unfortunately, a Libyan legislation includes a provision allowing people who have entered the country irregularly to face imprisonment for an undefined period of time as well as fines and hard labour; which means there’s little the UNHCR can do to help the people in detention centers.
Many of the risks migrants and refugees in detention centers face are related to the arising conflicts in Libya. During heights of conflict, the already high possibility of danger further increases; in June 2019, 53 lives were lost when an airstrike targeted the Tajoura detention center-the second strike to hit the center that year. On numerous occasions, shelling had also hit neighbourhoods near detention centers; there was a case involving a shooting incident at another center. According to the report, amidst this violence, some refugees and migrants reported being forced to fight in the conflict and perform tasks such as cleaning or loading weapons, repairing and cleaning military vehicles, and removing dead bodies from the battlefield. Illness and inaccessibility to medical attention is another risk the detainees face in the centers. Since 2018, around 25 people are known to have died of tuberculosis and other illnesses in Zintan.
“I was held in a detention centre in Libya. So many people there are sick, most have tuberculosis. There is no medical treatment available. We would see people dying every day. At least two to three people each day. They took some people, at least 50 and said they would take them for treatment…but they never came back. We don’t know if they are alive or not. The people have no access to sunlight or to fresh air. Me, I did not go outdoors from 2017 until now. My sisters, they are still there. It hurts me inside.” - [Eritrean man evacuated from Libya by UNHCR, 2019]
Direct causes of death during travel include sickness and lack of access to medicine, starvation, dehydration, lack of adequate shelter, abuse, and vehicle accidents.
“They would give us a little water only once in the morning. They would beat us to rush us, saying there are thieves and bandits on the way. Our brothers would fall and die of thirst. You just leave them there. There are times when you don’t even bury them properly. This is a fact, because we dumped many of our brothers and sisters on the way. The Sahara is difficult.” - [Kidane from Eritrea, interviewed by Telling the Real Story, 2019]
Out of desperation, these refugees and migrants submit themselves to the worst possible conditions any human could ever withstand. The blatant disregard for human lives is too commonly ignored, and as a result, suffering ensues. Raising awareness about the horror they are forced to endure is crucial in order to push our governments to increase international aid and advocate for the lives of fellow human beings. They have lost hope, in all its meaning. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, “To live without hope, is to cease to live.”