By Alice Fill and Francesco Moresco
The drop in departures from Libya registered since 2017 following the introduction of policies to limit mobility has contributed to turn the country into an open-air prison. In this context of “forced stalemate” for migrants, detention for an indefinite timeframe represents the core strategy to manage irregular migration flows both for traffickers (as a method to concentrate in one place the individuals to be “commodified”) and for the Libyan government (as a method to punish or neutralize irregular migrants). The Libyan law on irregular migration itself provides for detention and, in various instances, for forced labour. According to the IOM, there were 663,000 migrants in Libya in 2019, almost 50,000 of whom were recognized as refugees or asylum seekers by the UNHCR.
Human trafficking to Libya
Although Libya represents a particularly difficult step in the migration route, subjugation and abuse experiences are constant throughout the journey.
The increasing criminalization of irregular migration and the substantial lack of regular pathways to asylum in European countries have de facto undermined the chances of safe and autonomous migrations. As of today, journeys to and across Libya are often divided into a series of segments (also called transit spaces), each posing substantial obstacles – which are often politically driven – to the continuation of the journey. Therefore people are totally dependent on their smugglers (also called gatekeepers) because they are the only ones with the necessary competencies, means and social contacts to continue the migratory journey.
This “de facto domination” occurs especially during the journey across the desert, which extends along two main routes: Mali-Algeria-Libya and Sudan-Libya. In the southern Libyan cities (Sabha, Qatrun, Kufra) groups of migrants are often ”handed over” (for gain) from one gang of smugglers to another and the same happens after they arrive in the Tripolitanian cities. Furthermore, migrants depend on local militias for the organization of their sea crossing.
During the different segments of the journey, migrants are generally unable to oppose abusive treatments. Not surprisingly, in the three segments mentioned above the highest numbers of physical and sexual abuses are registered together with exploitation, detention to extort money and enslavement.
The effects of the European policies blocking departures
An exhaustive analysis of the routes through Libya and the relocation of migrants following disembarkation is beyond the scope of this article. Yet, an attempt to put together different accounts gathered from different sources and describe the exploitation and subjugation experiences of those who are “rescued” by the Libyan authorities might help us define some consistent trends in a scenario of continuous change and increased violence.
The Italian and European engagement in externalization strategies – even through the support provided to Libyan authorities – have a substantial impact in avoiding that those people stuck in Libya reach the northern Mediterranean coast. These policies have the immediate consequence of developing systematic violence and exploitation dynamics – which are now widely documented – following the interception of migrants in the central Mediterranean.
Delegated refoulement operations – which are also called pullbacks in the 2018 UN report in order to underline their difference from search and rescue operations – are increasing: last year only, in the midst of the pandemic, almost 12,000 people were intercepted while attempting to escape Libya. During the first months of 2021 a record number of more than 2,000 intercepted people were registered, 1,500 of whom in the last week alone. These police actions represent the most widespread method to transfer migrants to detention centres where the risk of being trafficked and exploited becomes extremely high.
Those who survive “rescue” operations are sent to overcrowded detention centres near the coast where they live in inhuman conditions or are pushed back in clear violation of the non-refoulement principle.
The partition of migrants
What happens once the migrants have been intercepted and brought back to Libya?
First of all, it is crucial to understand that a variety of actors play a role in the detention centre system. The Libyan Coast Guard and the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS) – falling under the Ministry of Interior and Defence – notify the expected disembarkation point to the UNHCR, the IOM, the Red Cross and, in some instances, to some NGOs.
Since 2017, most disembarkations have occurred on the western coast, particularly near the Zawiya refinery (between Sabratha and Tripoli), at the harbour of Tajoura (east of Tripoli) and more recently at the harbour of Al-Khoms (between Tripoli and Misrata). Under international supervision migrants are registered and receive refreshment food kits, which often consist of one energy bar only. Those who, after a quick medical check, do not show particularly serious medical conditions are handed to officials from the DCIM (Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration).
From there migrants are transferred to different detention centres according to a “systemically non-systematic” procedure, which often includes the beating, robbing and selling of migrants. It is worth noting that their transfer is operated by private bus companies which are often directly involved in the smuggling. Normally, the detention centre is chosen depending on the place of disembarkation and the centre’s capacity, unless the detention centres that are already full are willing to pay to receive additional migrants in the hope of making a profit later.
In this phase, gender and nationality profiling of migrants can play an important role: the origin of migrants can relate to an alleged economic stability and travelling from a specific region often links them to a particular smuggling network. On the other hand, being a woman, girl or child opens the door to organized forms of exploitation and sexual abuse. As an example, this nationality and gender profiling is the reason why many women are immediately transferred to detention centres in Abu Salim district, south of Tripoli, and in Zintan.
According to IOM, there are currently 24 official detention centres run by the DCIM, while another 31 centres should not be functional by now. However, it is not uncommon for militias to reopen detention centres that have officially been closed. For example, this is the case of the centre managed by the al-Nasr brigade in Zawiya — that remained opened even though the DCIM had ordered its closure — and of the Abu-Issa centre (again in Zawiya), which was closed in 2018 after sexual abuse accusations brought by UNSMIL and reopened a few hours later by an armed group. Similarly, the Al-Khoms centre – currently the main destination for migrants intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard – was closed in August 2019 by Tripoli authorities who highlighted that systematic torture, extortion and sale of migrants reported in the centre were the responsibility of the militias and not of the government. Nevertheless, the centre is still open just like the centre in Tajoura, Tripoli, where a similar passing of the baton took place.
In addition to the official detention centres, there are unofficial centres maintained by armed groups or militias who, in most cases and particularly in Tripoli, extend their influence to centres that are only nominally under the control of the DCIM. Here, very often, international organizations are denied access. In addition to unofficial detention centres there is a plethora of facilities and “connection houses” of a rather temporary nature directly run by smugglers.
The economics of the detention centres: transfers and collusions
The boundaries among the three detention systems are so thin that it is often impossible to determine where the official centre starts and where the unofficial detention centre continues. In order to address overcrowding, it happens that official detention centres sell their migrants to unofficial centres that are often located further south and farther from the coast. For instance, this is the case of the aforementioned al-Nasr centre in Zawiya, from where migrants are transferred to the Ubari and Sebha centres for a price ranging from 20 to 200 EUR, depending on the estimated profit margin based on the victims’ region of origin, gender and employability.
The UN Security Council has recognized that there are structural connections among smuggler networks, the Libyan Coast Guard and the DCIM. It has even sanctioned some of the highest-ranking officials of the Libyan Coast Guard – including the head of the LGC unit in Zawiya, Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, known as al-Bija, who was arrested last October near Tripoli for his key role in the smuggling networks in Libya (see here and here). There are many reports proving the existence of such collusions and financial networks from the moment migrants are intercepted at sea (see here and here).
The risk of migrants being abused in Libyan territory is exacerbated by the country’s growing determination in fighting human smuggling by joining efforts among state authorities and a variety of local militias. Several voices have agreed that the recent anti-smuggling campaigns launched in Libya have, on one side, reduced the flow of departures by sea and, on the other, forced smugglers to change their modus operandi to adapt to a weak migration demand. This has caused operations of recruitment, transfer and accommodation of migrants to go into hiding and secrecy and resulted in an extension of the average waiting time in the connection houses scattered throughout the territory.
Another very critical phase for the safety of trafficking victims are the transfers organized by the DCIM. The armed conflict in the areas where the detention centres are located leads to a chaotic management of the centres, which are unable to keep track of the movements of individuals transferred from one centre to another. Quite often, people disappear and get lost in secondary smuggling that becomes more violent as smugglers’ profits decrease, thus making the sales of migrants among overcrowded centres an easy way to make extra money.
Last year the majority of migrants intercepted by the Coast Guard mysteriously disappeared from the UNHCR and IOM registries: they were in part directly transferred to unofficial centres, in part sold. It is in such contexts that the most brutal violations of human rights take place. As confirmed by Interviews conducted by Amnesty International in detention centres, “Libya is hell”. The economic exploitation of migrants has become the norm in many territories and the size of the detention centre ensures its systematic implementation.
Detention centres at the crossroad of smuggling mechanisms
In the framework of human smuggling the management of detention centres represents a clear business model aimed at maximizing profit. There is evidence that in both official and unofficial centres detention represents the logical initial step of the subsequent exploitation (whether for profit or not) of the individual who is kidnapped for ransom, forced into compulsory labour, sexual slavery or bought and sold in modern slave markets.
Whereas in the majority of the official centres extortion is generally perpetrated by individual staff members, in unofficial centres extortion becomes systematic. People are tortured until their family members pay the amount requested from the guards: payment of a ransom is currently the most common form of release. Detention in different centres and the sale from one centre to another often implies that ransom has to be paid each time. Forced labour and prostitution are almost the norm especially in those centres where smugglers and staff members are part of the same network, as is the case of the al-Nasr centre in Zawiya.
The risk of falling victim to such violence is particularly serious for women: according to a recent study, 75% of interviewed migrant women declared they had been subjected to forms of trafficking. In an abusive context clearly linked to gender dynamics, women show staggering “peaks of exposure” to specific abusive methods. In particular, it is estimated that 19% of migrant women are victims of violence and sexual exploitation. Such abuses normally take place in migrant camps and have been mainly reported in the coastal area near Tripoli and at the disembarkation points of the Libyan Coast Guard (Zawiya, Sabratha, Tripoli, Al-Khoms).
Furthermore, it appears that migrants are forced to work as staff in the very same detention centres where they are detained
, in exchange for slightly more bearable living conditions. Finally, in several confirmed cases detained migrants – especially of Sub-Saharan origin – were sold on real slave markets.
Even in the official centres, the health situation is tragically known as is the lack of appropriate nutrition. Detention conditions are cruel, inhuman and degrading. In the centres where the migrants are usually taken after disembarkation, such as the centre in Zintan, there is not even enough space to sit on the floor. Numerous evidences confirm that even in the centres managed by the DCIM migrants suffer serious human rights violations, torture and forced labour which, in a context of absolute impunity, often result in severe injuries and deaths.
All things considered, it is important to note that migratory routes to Libya – more and more strangled by policies of migration containment – imply that a vast number of those migrants who finally reach the Tripolitanian ports have suffered from instances of violence or exploitation. For those who eventually make it to Europe, having endured such suffering implies the activation of specific forms of assistance and protection. Having “survived Libya” has a tragically shared meaning among those who have escaped it.
The aforementioned uniformity of protection needs has convinced several studies on the central-Mediterranean migratory routes to apply the umbrella term “trafficking” not only to cases of labour, sexual or criminal exploitation or organ trafficking, but also to exposure to kidnapping, abduction and forms of physical and sexual violence. This decision is based on the submissive effect of such methods in the light of the commodification of the human being.
Therefore, if interception at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard represents a clear underestimation of the protection needs of migrants who in the majority of cases have experienced terrible traumas, the subsequent transfer to official or unofficial detention centres constitutes an additional exacerbation of their vulnerability and of the risk of subjugation. The entire detention system, in its numerous branches, mostly aims at making as much profit as possible from the exploitation of detainees. The instances of systematic extortion and exploitation clearly prove that human trafficking dynamics in Libya lead to violations of the most fundamental rights.