ON BOARD THE GEO BARENTS OFF LIBYA (AP) – Osman Touré was crying in pain from the repeated beatings and torture as he dialed his brother’s cell phone number.
“I am in prison in Libya,” Touré said during that August 2017 call. “They will kill me if you don’t pay 2,500 dinars in 24 hours.”
Within days, Touré’s family transferred the roughly $ 550 requested to secure his release from a government detention center in Libya. But Touré was not released – instead, he was sold to a trafficker and held in slavery for four more years.
Touré is among tens of thousands of migrants who have suffered torture, sexual violence and extortion at the hands of guards in detention centers in Libya, a major hub for migrants fleeing poverty and wars in Africa and Africa. Middle East, hoping for a better life in Europe.
The 25-year-old Guinean, along with two dozen other migrants, spoke to The Associated Press aboard the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by the medical aid group Médecins sans frontières in the Mediterranean off Libya. . Most had been held in trafficking warehouses and government detention centers in western Libya for the past four years.
They were among 60 migrants who fled Libya on September 19 in two damaged boats and were rescued a day later by the Geo Barents.
The European Union sent 455 million euros to Libya since 2015, largely channeled by United Nations agencies and aimed at strengthening the Libyan coast guard, strengthening its southern border and improving conditions for migrants.
However, colossal sums have been diverted to networks of militiamen and traffickers who exploit migrants, according to one. AP 2019 survey. Coast guard members are also complicit, handing migrants back to detention centers under deals with militias or demanding rewards for letting others go.
Last week, UN-commissioned investigators said in a 32-page report that “policies aimed at pushing migrants back to Libya away from European coasts ultimately lead to abuses”, including possible crimes against humanity.
The migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, told the AP that detention center guards beat and tortured them, then extorted money from relatives. Their bodies showed signs of old and recent wounds, as well as gunshot and knife wounds on their backs, legs, arms and face.
On paper, the detention centers are managed by the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration, overseen by the Interior Ministry and the Libyan interim authorities, which seized power earlier this year under the auspices of the UN to organize national elections by the end of the year. But on the ground, notorious militias remain in command, according to migrants and UN investigators.
Spokesmen for the Libyan government, interior ministry, management and coast guard did not respond to phone calls or messages seeking comment.
Touré began his attempted migration in March 2015. Traffickers held him captive for months on two separate occasions, in Niger and Algeria, before he entered Libya in April 2017, he said.
Four months later, Touré embarked from Libya, to be intercepted by the coast guard and returned to Tripoli. At the port, he was taken to the al-Nasr martyrs detention center in Zawiya.
It was then that the torture began. He described how guards hung migrants upside down and whipped their bare feet.
His second week in prison, six guards approached him. One of them slapped him hard in the face. The others kicked and beat him. Then he was given a cell phone and ordered to call his family.
Touré was taken from his cell phone three days after the phone call. He thought he would be free to walk. Instead, the guards sold him to a trafficker in Zawiya. He spent the next four years in slavery, working in the trafficker’s warehouse.
Eventually, his luck changed in September when the trafficker’s wife persuaded her husband to release him, he said. Within days, he was on a small inflatable boat with 55 other people trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Overloaded, the boat did not go far. Those on board were rescued by Geo Barents 48 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. They were taken to Sicily, where Italian authorities allowed the rescue ship to dock on September 27 and let the migrants seek asylum. They could still be returned to their country of origin if their applications are refused.
Touré and other migrants said there was racism behind their abuse in Libya. The UN report found the same – that black Sub-Saharan Africans were likely to be subjected to harsher treatment than others.
“Libya is not a safe place for black Africans,” Touré said.
For some people, especially Arab migrants, the ordeal ended without detention, as long as they paid. Waleed, a Tunisian, told the PA he had bribed guards four times in the port of Tripoli and was free. Mohammed, a Moroccan, also said he was released at the port in 2020 on handing over 3,000 dinars ($ 660). The two men only gave their first names out of fear for the safety of their family members still inside Libya.
The Libyan coast guard has intercepted some 87,000 migrants in the Mediterranean since 2016, including around 26,300 so far this year, according to UN figures. But only around 10,000 are in detention centers, according to the United Nations Migration Agency, raising concerns that many are in the hands of criminal groups and traffickers, and others died.
The UN report did not name any suspects, saying further investigation is needed to determine who was guilty.
But migrants and others inside Libya say the problem is clear: It is the militias and warlords who have become powerful government figures in many areas.
The coastal town of Zawiya, where the al-Nasr Martyrs Detention Center is located, is controlled by the Nasr Martyrs Militia, which has “the final say on all security and military matters in the city,” he said. said a former senior official in the Combating Illegal Migration Directorate, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“It’s a well-connected mafia with influence in every corner of the government,” the official said.
AP video reporter Ahmed Hatem contributed aboard the Geo Barents.