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Middle East

Headed for Europe, waylaid in Libya

Libya is a way station in many migrants' journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe. For some it becomes a jail, for others a death trap, even before they make contact with smugglers. Nancy Porsia reports from Misrata.

In the stale air of the detention center for irregular migrants in Misrata, not only are the rooms overcrowded, but the corridors are too. Mohamed, who can barely stand between the mattresses piled along the two sides, is unable to talk because one of his ribs is broken. The Eritrean fell during a shootout between the police and smugglers in the desert on the way to Libya. His friend helps him tell the story: "Three of us died, the smugglers ran away and we were brought here," explains the 20-year-old who, along with his friends, has been held for a month in the detention center on the eastern outskirts of Misrata.

The migrants' perilous journey along the Libyan route starts in the Sahara Desert. Here thousands of migrants perish even before reaching the coast to embark for Europe. In spite of the danger, this passage has been used by thousands of men, women and children fleeing poverty and war for almost 20 years. The chaos that has dominated Libya in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution appears to some like an opportunity to head to Europe, yet it often turns out to be a trap.

Typically migrants' first ports of call once they cross into Libya are the southeastern oasis of Kufra or Sabha, in the West, before they head to Tripoli in search of a boat leaving for Europe. But the journey is long: The lucky ones make it in three weeks, while for others it can take months.

After three months in Libya, Jamal, a 22-year-old from Somalia, finally managed to board a vessel heading to Italy in early April. But the engine of the rubber boat, which was overloaded with 110 migrants, broke down a few miles off Libyan shores. The Libyan coast guard rescued him and his companions and brought them to the Misrata detention center.

Jamal's memories gradually stream out. He was held by Sudanese smugglers in a storage space in Ajdabiya, the first pit stop for migrants along Libya's eastern coast. "We were beaten up daily for no reason, mainly when we dared to ask when we would leave. They said it was not our right to know." One night dozens of them were squeezed into a refrigerator van and driven to Tripoli. "That night the smugglers stopped and raped some women travelling with us," he continues, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground.

Eritrean women in a detention center for illegal migrants in Misrata

The Misrata detention center is effectively a jail for those migrants caught in Libya on their way to Europe

Soraya, a 16-year-old girl from Somalia, has been at the Misrata detention center for three months now. She never made it to Ajdabiya. She was travelling from Kufra to Ajdabiya in the trunk of a car when police at a checkpoint spotted them. "The driver tried to run away, the police opened fire and two people sitting in the car died," she says. Soraya dreams of the sea crossing to Italy, although she has never seen the sea. "I know it is dangerous, but I do not have any [other option]," she says, adding: "It is also my first time in prison."

Danger on the inside

Far from being safe places, the detention centers in Libya represent a new leg of the risky journey for migrants. Tarek, an Eritrean at the Mistrata center, recalls: "One day the guards shouted at Christians who didn't join the Islamic prayer and then shot with firearms at the windows and left."

karte Libyen Englisch

The director of the prison, Salah Abu Dabbus, a man in his early 30s, tells DW: "I haven't been able to sleep at night since I took office here because I know that I cannot trust my staff entirely, but we do not have any other resource except them." He also stressed that the prison guards have not received their salaries for six months due to the technical problems caused by the existence of two governments in the country. Dabbus installed surveillance cameras in the prison as the one tool to hinder abuses.

Over 1,500 migrants had been squeezed into the Misrata detention center in mid-April, mostly Eritreans, Somalis, Gambians, Senegalese and Nigerians. Dabbus explains: "We systematically contact the embassies of migrants held in here to hand them over. But no one responds, with the exception of Senegal."

Once in smugglers' hands …

"I do not know if they'll let me go, maybe when I decide to pay," says Tarek. The jailers often ask for up to $2,000 in exchange for a migrant's release. Once they are free, the migrants typically head to Tripoli where mediators from their home countries distribute them among the Libyan smugglers along the coast, on the basis of how much they can pay.

In the West of the country, between Sabratha and Zuwara, a ticket for the sea crossing costs up to $2,000, which includes expert sailors from Tunisia or Egypt and a second try if the Libyan coast guard stops them the first time. Launching from the coast between Tajoura, in the eastern outskirts of Tripoli, and Castelverde, 30 kilometers further east, the journey costs only $300 - to make the trip on a rubber boat loaded with up to 200 people, the 'captain' charged with sailing the boat chosen from among the migrants, and departure even on rough seas. Often migrants don't want to set off in such conditions, but low-cost smugglers force them to climb aboard.

Migrants rescued at sea by Libyan Coast Guard in Khoms, April 2015

These people are among the lucky ones who were rescued at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard in April

Although the high season - when boats overloaded with migrants leave daily - had not yet started, the Italian government registered a 30 percent increase of migrants reaching their shores in the first four months of 2015, to 26,556 people. This time, the massive death toll has triggered a full-fledged alarm as 1,700 migrants have already died in the Mediterranean this year, compared to 17 in the first months of 2014.

Saddiq Jiesh, deputy mayor of the town of Zuwara, one of the main hubs in Libya for human trafficking to Europe, told DW: "The death of 700 migrants this April is a great tragedy, but unfortunately these obscene scenes are not new to us." Jiesh explains: "Since last year we have witnessed hundreds of corpses returned from the sea on our shores." Hundreds of migrants' bodies have been recovered by Zuwara authorities and buried in the local cemetery.

"Back then we asked the Italian government to destroy the boats at sea after Mare Nostrum rescue operations, in order to prevent smugglers from bringing them back to the shores," he says referring to referring to the Italian naval search and rescue operation scrapped last year. They did not. So I do not understand the logic of the new Italian policy," he adds, in reference to Rome's proposal to destroy boats in Libyan ports as a measure to hinder human trafficking.

One migrant smuggler in Zuwara tells DW: "The destruction of the boats is not a solution, as it's likely to hit honest fishermen who have nothing to do with traffic." He adds: "For example, I work with rubber boats imported from the UAE and Turkey."

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