01 January 2009

Border Sahara: the detention centres in the Libyan desert

Polizia all'esterno della feritoia di un camionSEBHA – “With us, in the truck, there was a four year old child, with his mother. We were crammed like animals inside the lorry, with no air and no space to move. I wondered how a child could be put in these conditions. Inside the container it was very hot. The journey took 21 hours, from 4 pm to 1 pm the following day. They didn’t give us anything to eat. People urinated one in front of the others. When the drivers stopped to eat, we put the child against the narrow windows of the container. His name was Adam. Finally we arrived in Kufrah. When I got out I stole some bread which had been hung outside the container. We had not eaten since the previous day. We were 110 people. Including the four year old boy, Adam and his mother”. [1]

Camion dall'internoMenghistu is not the only one who has been locked inside a container and been deported. This is quite normal, in Libya. Containers are used to transport migrants arrested on their way to Europe, to the different detention camps. There are three kinds of containers. The smallest one is a pick-up car. The medium is the equivalent of a minivan. While the biggest is a real container, blue in colour, with three small windows on each side, pulled by an articulated lorry. The first time I heard about migrants deported inside the containers, it was in the spring of 2006, during an interview with an Eritrean refugee in Italy. At that time I didn’t want to believe him. The images of hundreds of men, women and children locked inside an iron box in order to be concentrated in a detention camp, without having committed any crime, and then deported, reminded me of the ghosts of the Second World War. It was too harsh to be true. But the image of the containers came again, as a proof of authenticity, in all the stories of the refugees I met, that had passed through Libya. And finally I was able to see those containers with my own eyes.

Camion dall'esternoSebha is the capital of the historic region of Fezzan. We are at the gates of the great Libyan desert. Until the last century, this city has been an important transit point for the caravans which crossed the Sahara. Today the caravans have been replaced with migrants. Colonel Zarruq is the director of the new detention center in the city. It was inaugurated last August 20, 2008. Behind the wall there are three buildings, where up to 1,000 people can be detained. In the dirty parking, I see an articulated lorry with a container. The director shows me the tractor. An Iveco Trakker 420, six wheels. The mileometer indicates 41,377 km. It’s quite new. Zarruq says the truck arrived the previous night from Qatrun, four hours of desert from here. On board there were 100 prisoners, arrested at the border with Niger. We enter inside the container, from the rear stairs. The atmosphere is quite claustrophobic, even without anyone. It’s hard to imagine how it could be with 100 or 200 people piled it this iron box. The sunlight rays filtered by the dust, illuminate the empty plastic jerry cans, on the floor, under the iron benches. Over one of them there's written Gambia.

Pattuglie nel desertoWater is the essential baggage for migrants who cross the desert. Before leaving, everyone takes one or two cans with him/her. Jute can help to protect the water from the heat of the sun. The important thing is to write one's name on it, in order to recognize it. Crossings the Sahara is very dangerous. The truck can have an engine problem, the driver can get lost on his way, or simply decide to leave all the passengers and go back with their money. And there's also the threat of the armed gangs which attack and rob migrants' cars in Niger and Algeria. Within hundreds of miles there is nothing else than sand. Dozens of people die every month, even if the news hardly arrives. Just on the international press, we found the evidence of 1,677 migrants who died crossing the Sahara. But according to the witnesses of survivors, every trip counts its dead.

Scala di ingresso nel containerAmong the last hundred migrants brought to Sebha with the container, there is also a family from Sikasso in Mali. Father, mother and child. They were arrested three days earlier, in Ghat, along the Algerian border. I meet them in the Director's office. The child is eight years old, he was attending the third class before leaving. His father holds him among his strong arms. He speaks Arabic, and says they were not headed to Europe. Their destination was Sebha, because he had already worked  here in 2002, with a German company. They carry their passports with them, but without the Libyan entry visa. In the detention camp, they are locked in separate cells. The child stays with his mother. Their names are on the list of the next aircraft ready to leave. In the first eleven months of 2008, more than 9,000 migrants have been deported from Sebha, mainly to Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Ghana, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Just in November, 1,120 people were repatriated from here. Zarruq shows me the list of flights: 467 Nigerians deported on 2 September, 420 Malians in mid-November. The embassies cooperate sending here their officials to identify the detainees. Kabbiun and Ajouas have already met the Nigerian embassy. Kabbiun is barefoot. He lost his shoes in the desert, after he was arrested in Ghat. Ajouas instead had been living in Tripoli for six years before being arrested. None of them saw a judge or a lawyer. Their detention is not validated by a Court, and it’s neither possibile to make an appeal, nor to apply for political asylum.

Cella immigrati detenuti a SebhaIt is the case of Patrick. He comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the war has recently exploded again, in Kivu. He was arrested a month ago in Tripoli, while he was looking for a daily job on the roads near Suq Thalatha. We can talk freely in French, because the interpreter can’t speak it. He shows me a sheet from his pocket. It's his asylum seeker certificate. Issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Unhcr) in Tripoli, on 9 October 2007. Yes, Patrick applied for asylum and now he’s waiting to be deported. Like the other detainees at this time, Patrick has no right to call outside, not even the UNHCR. If he will not find the money to corrupt some policeman, sooner or later, he will be deported. And like him, his cellmates. They are kept in 12 rooms, 8 per 8 meters. Detainees sleep on the ground, there’s no mattress. The light comes from large windows on the top of the high walls. Each room is filled with 60-70 people. They are locked up the whole day. They are allowed to exit only for meals, in a room used as a canteen.
The deportation flights are operated by Libyan companies: Ifriqiya and Buraq Air. All the operations are paid by the Libyan government, says the director Zarruq. But it is hard to believe him. After all, in December 2004 the European Commission already spoke about 47 return flights from Libya funded by Italy. Zarruq insists. According to him, Rome only sent two jeeps for patrol, within the project Across Sahara. Also the new detention centre has not be funded by Italy – he says – even if Rome was committed to do it initially. However, the old facilities have been restored and expanded. And many migrants repatriated in Niger say they were forced to hard labor to build it. And they also say many people were left in the desert, along the border, and abandoned there during the deportations. It was the period of “voluntary returns”, in 2004, when more then 18,000 migrants were loaded in the trucks and left in the desert, with several accidents and dozens of victims. Zarruq doesn’t want to talk about it. Today all deportations are done by airplane, he simply says.

GhreraThe lieutenant Ghrera also doesn’t want to remember that time. He is the responsible for patrols in the Libyan Sahara. Italy and Europe promised to fund an electronic control system for the Libyan southern border, which will be produced by the Italian company Finmeccanica. He smiles. He has been working in the desert for the past 35 years. He knows well his field. He brought us to Zellaf, 20 km south of Sebha, to give us an idea. We are not yet in the great Sahara. Even though we can’t see anything else than sand. The two jeeps, after a drive on the dunes at 100 km per hour, switch off their engines. Ghrera and the other driver, 'Ali, wash their hands in the sand. And kneel to the east. They come to us after the prayer. Patrolling the Sahara is impossible, Ghrera says. Libya has 5,000 kilometers of border land in the desert. A terrain too large and too rugged. The 89 smugglers - almost all Libyans - arrested in the first eleven months of 2008 are nothing compared to the thousands of people who cross the Sahara each year. The patrols are done by groups of 10 cars on a five-day basis.
Then he smiles. He found an empty bottle of gin, in the sand. Alcohol is illegal in Libya. Actually the bottle says “made in Niger”. Ghrera throws it not far in the sand. He doesn’t say anything. The smugglers don’t work only with migrants. There are also alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, weapons. Before switching the engine on again, he insists on the point: even doubling the patrols, the desert will remain an open door.

The migrants’ detention center of Sebha is not the only one in the south. There are at least another five camps. Those of Shati, Qatrun, Ghat and Brak, in the south west of the country, are used to collect migrants arrested at the border with Algeria and Niger, before they are sent to Sebha. The other center is located 800 km south east from Sebha, in the city of Kufrah. This is where Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees, who entered from Sudan, are kept. This prison has the worst reputation not only among migrants, but even among Libyans.

Grattacieli a TripoliMohamed Tarnish is the president of the Organization for Human Rights, a Libyan NGO funded by the Foundation of Saif al Islam Qaddafi, the firstborn of the Colonel. We meet him at Sarayah Coffee, near the Green Square, in Tripoli. Since several years, this organization has been fighting for the improvement of the conditions of the Libyan prisons and has made the government release more than 1,000 Libyan political prisoners. From 2006, the NGO got access to some of the detention centers. They visited seven of them. Tarnish can’t speak freely as an official from the Foreign media office of the Libyan government is with us. Nevertheless he makes us understand that the center in Kufrah is actually the worst of all: old facilities, very overcrowded, without any health care and with a very bad quality of food.

Cella immigrati detenuti a SebhaTo understand what Tarnish exactly means, I reread the interviews made to the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees in 2007. “We were 78 people in a cell 6 meters per 8 " - "We slept on the floor, the head of one next to the feet of the other"-“We were so hungry. At times a plate of rice had to be shared by eight people"- “In the night police brought me in the courtyard. They asked me to do push ups. But when I wasn’t able to go on, they started kicking me and cursing me and my Christian religion"- "We shared one bathroom between 60 people, so that in the cell there was a permanent bad smell. It was impossible to wash ourselves"- "There were lice and fleas everywhere in the mattress, in the clothes, in the hair"-"Sometimes police entered the room, took a woman and raped her in front of the group".
It is the portrait of hell. But also a place for business. Yes, because since a couple of years, the police has started selling the detainees to the smugglers who will take them to the Mediterranean. The price for a man is around 30 libyan dinars, about 18 euros.

I was not allowed to visit the center of Kufrah and I have not been able to verify personally its conditions. However, the fact that all the refugees I spoke with, in the last three years, told me about a place of abuses, violence and tortures, makes me think that everything is true. In 2004 the European Commission reported that Italy was funding the building a detention center in Kufrah. In 2007, the Prodi government denied it, saying that Italy was financing just a health care center. Actually it doesn’t make such a big difference. The point is another one. Since 2003, Italy and the European Union are cooperating with Libya to fight migration. Now, the question is: why does everybody pretend to ignore what African migrants are suffering there?

Poliziotti all'ingresso del centro di detenzione di SebhaIn 2005, the former director of the Italian secret services (SISDe), Prefect Mario Mori, informed the Italian Parliament: "Undocumented migrants in Libya are caught like dogs” and put in centers so overcrowded that “policemen must wear a dust mask over their mouth because of the nauseating odours". But the Ministry of Interior already knew it. Actually since 2004 the Italian police is training their Libyan colleagues in fighting immigration. And a few high officials of the Ministry of Interior, have visited the detention centers in Libya several times, including that in Kufrah. But silence was imposed over reality. The same hypocrisy has been shown by the European Union. In a report of 2004, the European Commission defined the conditions of detention camps in Libya "difficult" but in the end "acceptable in the light of the general context". Three years later, in May 2007, a delegation of Frontex visited the south of Libya, including the prison of Kufrah, to lay the foundations for a future cooperation. Guess what they wrote: “We appreciated both the diversity as the vastness of the desert". Not a single word instead about the conditions of the prisoners. An oversight?

[1] Witnesses collected by the school of Italian Asinitas, Rome, 2007

Watch the documentary
"Like a man on earth"
For the first time African refugees reported the abuses they suffered in Libya

Read our first reportage from Libya
We have entered in the prison of Misratah, where 600 Eritreans are held since 2006

Download our report on the conditions of migrants in Libya
Escape from Tripoli. Report on Libya, Fortress Europe, 2007

(Gabriele Del Grande, 7 january 2009)