Video:Inside Zawya migrant detention centre in Libya, where hundreds of rescued asylum seekers were taken this week.
Risking death in the Mediterranean: the least worst option for so many migrants
Inmates of a Libyan migrant detention centre explain why the often lethal gamble of sea crossings hold no fear when escaping tyranny, hunger and disease
Patrick Kingsley in Zawya
Friday 17 April 2015 13.56 BST
Sobbing and shaking, Mohamed Abdallah tries to explain why he still wants to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable boat. He sits in a migrant detention centre in Zawya, Libya, surrounded by hundreds of fellow asylum seekers who nearly died this week at sea.
They survived only after being intercepted, detained and brought back to shore by Libyan coastguards, ending a week in which they went round in circles, starving and utterly lost. But despite their horror stories, Abdallah, 21, says the journey that his fellow inmates barely withstood – and that killed more than 450 others this week – is his only option.
“I cannot go back to my country,” says Abdallah, who is from Darfur, in Sudan. He left for what is now South Sudan in 2006, after he says his village was destroyed in the Darfur war, his father died, and his sisters raped. But in South Sudan, another war later broke out. So he made his way through the Sahara, a journey that he says killed his brother and cousin, to Libya. And there last year, he was witness to his third civil war in a decade – a war that still drags on, its frontline just a few miles from the camp at Zawya.
“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah says. “But if I stay here, it’s just like my country. There is no security, there is violence. When you work, they take your money.”
He worked in a soap shop, and saved up to pay local smugglers for the boat to Europe. But just as he hoped to complete the payment, he was robbed, and then arrested. The recounting of his ordeal brings out first the tears, and then a conclusion: “I need to go to Europe.”
Shuffling shoeless around the sandy courtyard, queuing for their daily bowl of rice and a potato, there are 350 men and women who very recently wanted the same. There are Eritreans here, fleeing one of the world’s harshest dictatorships. There are Ghanaians – often migrants in search of jobs. There are people escaping conflict in Nigeria, Chad and Ivory Coast. And a man from Sierra Leone, Abu Bakr, who says both his parents died in last year’s ebola outbreak.
Around 120 had been at sea for a week, drifting aimlessly. Libyan smugglers had crammed them on the boat with just a compass and no driver. “No one knew where we were going,” says Vincent Collins, a 24-year-old Nigerian who arrived here a day ago. His pregnant wife Jennifer is locked in a separate cell. “Everyone had an idea, everyone was trying to drive the boat,” Collins adds. “We were just following the sun.”
The bread and water – just three-dozen 500ml bottles – ran out after two days. With nowhere to move, men in the middle of the boat simply urinated onto their neighbours. “They pissed on all our clothes,” says Fatima Bahgar, a 20-year-old Malian student. “I was sick of the scent.” At the edge of the boat, two men overbalanced, fell into the water, and drowned. A third seemed to be overwhelmed by the situation, or the thirst, and tried to sabotage the boat himself. “So the other boys,” says Bahgar, “put him over the side”.
Record numbers of migrants are dying in the Mediterranean this year, amid the largest wave of mass-migration since the second world war. So far in 2015, nearly a thousand asylum seekers have drowned, including 450 this week in at least three separate incidents. That puts the death toll at around 20 times higher than the equivalent figure in 2014, which was itself a record year.
Last October, EU officials hoped to curb the death rate by scaling back full-scale Italian run search-and-rescue missions, arguing they were simply encouraging more people to come. Operation Mare Nostrum saved around 100,000 lives last year, but politicians said they felt they could save more by ending it.
This year’s events suggest otherwise. Deaths have increased exponentially, but have failed to deter others risking the same fate. The number of those attempting the journey from the Libyan coast – and to a lesser extent from Egypt – has remained at the same high level. The explanation from migrant after migrant at Zawya is simple. The risk of death at sea is no worse than the dire circumstances they found themselves either in their home country, or in Libya.
Eritreans formed the second largest group of immigrants to Europe last year, after Syrians, and at Zawya they are among the most vocal. An Eritrean nurse, Bayin Keflemekal, describes the horror of home, where anyone suspected of breathing a word of dissent is imprisoned, and where emigration is all but banned. “Our country is a total dictatorship,” says Keflemekal, 30. “They can put us in prison for unlimited years. If we go back we will die.”
Conditions in the nearby countries of northern and eastern Africa are hardly more secure. Time and again, neighbouring governments have not upheld their obligations to refugees – with Egypt and Sudan among the states that have in recent years deported Eritreans back to their military regime. In Libya, their precarious position has been compounded by the war, which has forced the world’s two largest refugee advocates – the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – to drastically reduce their operations.
“It is not our choice to penetrate the sea,” says Keflemekal. “If we got some help from the Libyan government, from UNHCR, we would try something else. But if the government won’t help us, if UNHCR won’t help us, if no one can help us, then the only option is to go to the smugglers. We are suspended in the air.”
Not everyone has such heartrending reasons for risking the Mediterranean. One woman wants to get to Europe because she believes she is more likely to get a visa to visit her brother in America. A Ghanaian says he isn’t fleeing political persecution but just wants a job. But almost all have ended up in a situation that forces them to go to sea.
Some may have come to Libya as a destination in itself, looking for work. But often their employers take their passports, and essentially treat them as slave labour. If they protest, they risk being reported to the police. And if they leave entirely, they risk being arrested as an illegal migrant.
“If they escape, they have no other options,” says Zakariya el-Zaidi, the co-founder of Mercy Wings, a NGO in Tripoli that combats human trafficking. “They can’t reach out to their embassy because they have no other identification. And some of them really can’t go back to their countries, and they can’t claim asylum here. Libya doesn’t really recognise asylum seekers.”
The situation at Zawya, nominally one of the better detention centres in Libya, typifies that country’s approach. The camp’s guards speak with some compassion and sincerity about the inmates. In the absence of central funding, they say they pay for the inmates’ daily rice from their own pocket, and want foreign help to set up a proper blood-test centre.
But the conditions are harsh; the rooms reek of urine and they squeeze more than 60 detainees into each. There are no beds. The inmates complain of beatings, though the camp commander says this is “just occasional” and “essential crowd control”.
The inmates’ frustration is understandable: many of them are detained for months on end, without any hope of release. The camp commander, Col Khaled Tomy, admits this is a problem. But says his hands are tied by the war, which has left Libya ruled by two parallel governments. “Ideally they wouldn’t stay more than a month,” says Tomy. “But the problem is that processing isn’t happening. Diplomats aren’t in Libya at the moment, and we don’t have buses or vans to transport them.”
But some people do get released. Tomy says local militias have occasionally come to take the most battle-ready migrants to fight in the civil war. Other inmates report that you can leave for a bribe. “Why are we asked to pay 1000 dinars [around £250] to leave?” asks one. “Why?”
If and when they do leave, some inmates claim they’ll go straight back home, and won’t risk the sea again. But the guards say this is just talk: they see the same faces return again and again. Even with the rise in deaths, the lure of Europe is too great.
Late at night, back in the suburbs of Tripoli, a Ghanaian called Abdo underlines why. His friends all know about the deaths at sea this week, he says. But they’ll risk the journey anyway because, once again, they feel it’s the least worst option. “We follow the news on the African TV and the BBC, we know what’s going on,” says the 32-year-old.
“We call each other, we say, ‘eh, man, you see what’s happening?’ But you know in French we say: ‘Cabri mort n’a pas peur du couteau’” … A dead goat doesn’t fear the butcher’s knife.
Additional reporting: Yaseen Kanuni
Received on Fri Apr 17 2015 - 11:03:19 EDT