People press behind the door. They have not been receiving any visits since they were arrested. Someone raises the voice: “Help us!" A young man put the hand out of the loophole and gave me a piece of cardboard. On it a telephone number is written by pen. The prefix is that of Gambia. I put it in my pocket, hiding from the police. His name is Outhman. He asks me to tell his mother he is still alive. He has been locked in this prison for the last five months. Fabrice instead has spent nine months here. Both of them were arrested during police raids in the immigrants neighbourhoods in Tripoli. Since several years actually, Libya is committed to patrol the European southern borders. By any means. In 2003 Italy signed an agreement with Gaddafi and sent motorboats, cars and body-bags overseas... funding detention centres and deportation flights. Since then, tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees every year are arrested in Libya and held in such inhuman conditions.
"People are suffering here! The food is bad, and the water is dirty. We are sick and there are pregnant women." Gift is 29 years old. She is from Nigeria. She was arrested three months ago, while she was walking with her husband on the street. They left two children in Tripoli, she said. She is not allowed to call them. Her husband was repatriated the previous week. She is still here, alone, wearing the same clothes she had when she was taken as a prisoner. She has been living in Libya for three years, working as a hairdresser, and until the moment she was caught she didn't have the slightest intention to cross the sea towards Italy, as many of the other immigrants who are here.
It is not the case of Y. Because he really dreamed about Europe. He is Eritrean and he deserted the army in order to seek for political asylum in Europe. He was apprehended in the sea. By the Libyan police. And locked here in Zlitan. Before entering in the office of the director – Ahmed Salim -, a policeman whispers something to Y's ear. When we ask him about the conditions of the prison, he answers with a trembling voice: "Everything is good." He is frightened. He knows that if he says something wrong he will be beaten. The director smiles in front of him and grants us he will not be deported. Within the next week he will be transferred to the detention centre of Misratah, 210 km east of Tripoli, where all the Eritreans refugees are concentrated.
In the region of Zlitan, there are three other detention centres for immigrants, in Khums, Garabulli and Bin Ulid. They are smaller and the detainees kept there are normally moved to the camp of Zlitan, which can hold up to 325 people. But how many detention centres are there in Libya? According to the evidences we collected in the last years, they are at least 28, mostly concentrated along the coast. There are three kinds of centres. There are concentration camps, like those of Sebha, Zlitan, Zawiyah, Kufrah and Misratah, where migrants and refugees are concentrated waiting for their deportation. Then there are smaller facilities, such as Qatrun, Brak, Shat, Ghat, Khums ... where foreigners are held for a shorter period of time before being sent to the bigger camps. And then there are the prisons: Jadida, Fellah, Twaisha, Ain Zarah ... Common prisons I mean, with entire pavilions dedicated to undocumented foreigners. The most known was the prison of Fellah, in Tripoli, but it was recently demolished to construct a new building, in line with the restyling of the entire city. Its function was replaced by Twaisha, the prison near the airport.
Koubros managed to escape from Twaisha only few weeks ago. He is Eritrean, 27 years old. He used to live in Sudan, but after an Eritrean friend was deported from Khartoum, he suddenly decided to leave towards a safer place in Europe. He left Twaisha walking on crutches. He says he was seriously beaten by a drunk policeman who asked him for money. Fortunately his Eritreans cell mates helped him collect some money to grant his release. To bribe a prison guard $300 is enough. I met him in front of the church of San Francesco, in Tripoli. Like every Friday, about fifty African migrants wait for the Caritas to open. Tadrous is one of them. He was released last October from the prison of Surman. He is one of the few refugees having been judged by a court. His story interests me. It was in June 2008. They took the sea from Zuwarah, in 90 people. But after a few hours they decided to come back, because of the stormy sea, and they were arrested. The judge sentenced them to 5 months of detention, with the charge of illegal emigration. I ask him if he was given a lawyer. He simply smiles shaking the head. The answer is no.
Nothing strange, says the lawyer Abdussalam Edgaimish. Libyan law does not provide free legal aid for crimes punishable by less than three years. Edgaimish is the director of the Bar of Tripoli. He welcomes us in his office, in the First September street. He explains us that the practice of arrest and detention of immigrants have nor legal basis neither a validation from the court. Any Libyan citizen, according to the law, could not be deprived of liberty without a warrant of arrest. But for foreigners it is not the same. Police raids are usual. The practice is that of house-to-house raids in the suburbs of Tripoli.
"Migrants are victims of a conspiracy between the two shores of the Mediterranean. Europe sees them only as a security problem, but nobody wants to talk about their rights." Jumaa Atigha is also a lawyer from Tripoli, graduated in Rome in 1983. Since 1999, he chaired the Organization for the Human Rights of the Foundation led by the firstborn of Gaddafi, Saif al Islam. In 2007 he resigned. During his presidency he led a national campaign, making the Government release 1,000 political prisoners. He describes a country involved in a rapid change, but still far from an ideal situation with respect to individual and political freedom. Atigha knows well the conditions of detention in Libya. From 1991 to 1998 he has been jailed without trial, as a political prisoner. He tells us that torture is a common practice among the Libyan policemen. "The lack of awareness means that policemen think to serve justice, while they are torturing people”
Mustafa O. Attir thinks the same. He is professor of sociology in the Tripoli University of El Fatah. "It is not simply a problem of racism. Libyans are kind with foreigners. It is a matter of police." Attir knows what he says. He visited Libyan prisons as a researcher in 1972, 1984 and 1986. Police officers have no education – he tells us - and are instead educated to the concept of punishment.
Suddenly his words make me rethink to the Ghanaian hairdressers in the medina, the Chadian tailors, the Sudanese shops, the Egyptians waiters, the Moroccan ladies in the cafeterias, and the Africans cleaning the roads every night. While Eritreans refugees are hiding themselves in the suburbs of Gurji and Krimia, thousands of African immigrants live and work here, maybe exploited, but with relative peace. Certainly for Sudaneses and Chadians people, everything is easier. They speak Arabic and they are Muslims. They have been living in Libya for tens of years and therefore they are quite tolerated. The same for Egyptians and Moroccans. Instead it's different for Eritreans and Ethiopians. They are here only to transit to Europe. Often they do not speak Arabic. Often they are Christians. And their grandparents fought against Libyans with the Italian colonial troops. And as they travel with the money for the crossing in the pocket, they are often robbed even in the street. For the Nigerians, and more generally for the Anglophone sub-Saharans, it's different. If they are directed to Europe or not, it is not important. Their integration in the Libyan society clashes systematically with the racist stereotypes against Nigerians, linked to the crimes of some Nigerian criminal networks. They are accused of smuggling drugs and alcohol, exploiting prostitution, bringing the HIV virus and perpetrating robbery and murders.
During 2007, professor Attir organized three conferences on the subject of immigration in the Arab countries. In Libya he is one of the greater experts. And he is ready to deny the figures circulating in Europe. "Two million immigrants in Libya are waiting to leave for Italy? It's not true." Actually there is no statistic whatsoever. The Libyan population is five and a half million people. Foreigners cannot reasonably be more than one million, including Arab immigrants. Most of them have never thought of crossing the sea. And Libya needs them, because its economy is growing, and the country is underpopulated and its citizens don't even want to consider taking on heavy and cheap jobs. Attir is aware of the pressures that Europe is doing on Libya. But he also knows that "there is no way" to stop the transit of migrants in the sea.
Libya has about 1,800 km of coastline, largely uninhabited. Colonel Khaled Musa, head of anti-immigration patrols in Zuwarah, doesn't really think that the six patrol boats promised by Italy will solve the problem. For sure they will help to control the coast between the Tunisian border, Ras Jdayr, and Sabratah. But it's only around 100 km long. The 6% of the Libyan coast. And the departures have already moved on the coasts east of Tripoli, between Khums and Zlitan, more than 200 km from Zuwarah. The department of immigration of Zuwarah was created in 2005. The number of migrants arrested fell from 5,963 in 2005 to 1,132 in 2007. For the head of the investigations' department, Sala el Ahrali, the figures show the success of the repressive measures. Many smugglers have been arrested, that is why the departures decreased. And the coast is patrolled every night, by cars. Every 10 kilometres there is a police tent, on the beach. But only along 50 kilometres from the Tunisian border, from Farwah, to Mellitah, near the gas treatment plant owned by the Italian Eni and the Libyan National Oil Company.
It goes from Mellitah to Gela, in Sicily. Greenstream, by name, is the longest underwater pipeline in the Mediterranean. Ironically, it runs along the same route which leads thousands of migrants to Lampedusa. On the surface of the sea, the EU sends its military forces to stop the transit of human beings. While at the bottom of the sea, eight billions cubic meters of gas annually pass through the 520 km of pipes, among the bones of thousands of victims of migration. An image that perfectly summarizes the relationship of the last five years between Rome and Tripoli, led under the slogan "more oil, less immigrants".
Libya: inside the immigrants detention centre of Misratah
Border Sahara: the detention centres in the Libyan desert
Download the Fortress Europe 2007 Report: Escape from Tripoli