Refugees adrift in Libyan coastal town | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 27.11.2018
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Refugees adrift in Libyan coastal town

For many refugees it's a lose-lose situation in Libya. The crackdown by Italy and Libya means a sea crossing is next to impossible. Meanwhile, local authorities feel overwhelmed. Karlos Zurutuza reports from Zuwara.

It's easy to spot them. They line up day after day alongside the road that runs from Zuwara's Martyrs' Square to the mosque the civil war left in ruins before it was even finished. Approached by DW, the migrants who are waiting for the odd job in cleaning or construction immediately form a circle.

"Is it true that Italy has closed its ports to migrants? Are the Libyan coastguards as effective as they say? Are there any rescue boats at all?" Questions pile up as others join the group.

Twenty-one-year-old Emile, who left his home in Guinea in 2015, recalls how he crossed Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Algeria and Morocco before his first attempt to reach Europe. "I tried to cross in Tangier, on ferries, and then by boat to Ceuta. After the third attempt, the Moroccan police took me to a detention center in Casablanca with many others," he told DW.

After he was released, he crossed the Algerian desert to reach Libya where he was kidnapped once and arrested twice. Emile says he's familiar with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's hard-line policies and that there are "way more Libyan coastguards than NGOs." However, he says he will risk it at sea.

Karte Libyen Zuwara EN

But not everyone else is following suit. After several months struggling to find the money to jump on a raft boat bound north, 23-year-old Sammy says he now sees things differently.

"I just want to register with the UNHCR so I can be repatriated back to Nigeria but I haven't told my parents yet," he told DW. He says he follows events on the internet.

Read moreNigerian returnees face poverty and destitution back home

"Those of us who speak English get updated info, but French speakers and Arabic speakers like those guys over there hardly get to know what's going on," he said, pointing to a group of Sudanese a few meters away.

"Do you have any contacts at the UN so I can register and leave?" a Cameroonian asked DW. His name is Daniel and he says he has been limping since he was shot in the leg in Tripoli three months ago.

On the verge of collapse

Those migrants who get caught by the police within the smuggling chain are taken to the local detention center. It was set up last year in the building of a former prison. Anwar Abudi, the center manager, says they currently host 300 individuals, most of them Sub-Saharan Africans. There are 25 women and seven children, including a newborn. Just the day before, it was Abudi himself who took the young Nigerian mother to hospital so she could give birth.

"Any international aid, whether it's money, materials or vehicles, has to go through Tripoli first, but nothing ever arrives here because of corruption," he told DW as he walked across the separate wings for men and women. While some of them complained about the dire conditions of the building, all those interviewed by DW said they had not been mistreated by the guards.

According to Abudi, three-quarters of the inmates have been repatriated so far this year. "Delays are the norm," he said. Currently there are three Yemenis and a Syrian among the detainees. While the latter's process to go back to his country is underway, the Yemenis told DW that they knew nothing about their fate.

"Going back to Yemen? I haven't heard of my family for over a year. I wonder if there's still anyone alive," 19-year-old Abed told DW.

A group of migrants sitting around a table (DW/K. Zurutuza)

Like so many others, these migrants face an uncertain future

The north-western town of Zuwara is Libya's only coastal Amazigh enclave, and is surrounded by Arab villages where loyalists to the dead leader Moammar Gadhafi are still dominant. But that's just one among many pressing issues. Sadiq Jiash, head of Zuwara's emergency committee, points to a "growing" to-do list: from the environmental damage caused by an abandoned petrochemical plant in the west, to the dozens of displaced Tuareg families arriving from Libya's south. Then there are the makeshift graveyard for migrants, the problems caused by oil smuggling across the Tunisian border and, of course, human trafficking.

Human traffickers cash in

Zuwara had been a major departure point for migrants until a brigade called "the Masked Men" was set up by the authorities in 2015 to deal with the crisis. Dozens of smugglers were arrested and human trafficking figures dropped significantly. However, the unit was redeployed last year to monitor the nearby border with Tunisia, leaving the beach unsupervised again. Human traffickers could hardly believe their luck.

DW had the rare opportunity to speak with two men who claimed to smuggle migrants to Europe across the Mediterranean. The first one said he had successfully sent over 7,000 people to Europe over the last 15 years, and that he had only stopped during the nine months he had spent in Zuwara's makeshift jail after he was arrested by the "Masked Men." He says he was released after paying 150,000 dinars (€94,000, $107,000).

The second human trafficker, who introduced himself as "a 24-year-old ordinary guy from Zuwara," said he had been smuggling oil with Maltese vessels until last year. In October 2017, the killing of Daphne Caruana — a Maltese journalist who was investigating a corruption scandal which involved high ranking politicians in Malta — led to stricter controls of the sea traffic around the island. The Zuwari trafficker said he was then "forced" to resort to human trafficking as oil "was no longer a viable option."

"My rates range between 2,000 and 8,000 dinars, depending on the color of the skin. The darker the cheaper, so Somalis end up paying much less than Moroccans," the trafficker told DW. When asked whether he felt responsible for the deaths of migrants at sea, he said it had not happened to him. "My boats are never crammed and I keep in touch with the clients during the whole journey via satellite phone."

Read more:  German refugee NGO plane looks for the living and the dead

Watch video 02:03

Migrants switch to western Mediterranean route