Syrian migrants fall victims to “human trafficking mafia” in Libyan prisons

Boats transporting migrants between the coasts of Libya and Europe, and then decommissioned after they sank. Image from the magazine Baynana.

The report was prepared by Okba Muhammad, and published in ‘Baynana‘, an independent online magazine for Syrian immigrants in Spain. The report has been reproduced in accordance with a partnership agreement with Global Voices

Abu Adnan, 55, tried desperately to sell the reserve of firewood he had kept to protect his family from the winter cold in the city of Nawa in Daraa governorate in southern Syria. He urgently needed the money to pay officials in Ghouta al-Shaal prison, west of the Libyan capital Tripoli, to rescue his son Ahmed, who had been arrested by the Libyan coast guard in the Mediterranean.

Ahmed, Abu Adnan’s youngest child at 17, was heading to Italy on July 31 and has been in a prison affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA) for three weeks. He had left for Tripoli through Damascus International Airport last May, with the aim of emigrating to Europe, in search of a safer life than the one he was living in Daraa, where assassinations are frequent.

Many young Syrians have left southern Syria since the beginning of 2021, because the region’s instability, and their fear of being dragged into compulsory military service and thrown into the frontlines of the country’s north. Many of them sold their valuables in Syria to get the money needed to pay smugglers in Libya to take them to Italy and Malta by boat across the Mediterranean. But many never completed the journey.

According to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, over the past four months, the Libyan Coast Guard has arrested 800 Syrian youths as they tried to migrate to Europe via the Mediterranean from Libyan shores. The youngsters are locked up in four prisons across the capital: Al-Zawiya Prison, Abu Salim Prison, Ain Zara Prison, and Ghouta Al-Shaal Prison, where Ahmed is being held.

Mid-sea chase and fire

Walid, a 24-year-old Syrian man whose name has been changed to protect him from persecution as he remains in Libya, was arrested by the Libyan Coast Guard while in the middle of the sea, heading to Italy. The boat had 105 people on board, who were all escorted to the port of Tripoli and then to Al-Zawiya prison on July 31.

In a phone call with “Baynana,” Walid described his arrest:

كدنا أن نقترب من السواحل الإيطالية، ثم اقتربت باخرة من القارب الذي كنّا نستقلّه، وبدأوا بالإشارة لنا بأيديهم، قررنا الهرب، لكن قامت الباخرة بإنزال قارب صغير يحمل 6 مسلحين، وقاموا بمطاردتنا ثم أطلقوا النار على محرّك قاربنا حتى تمكنوا من تعطيله، ثم اقتربت الباخرة وقاموا بنقلنا إليها، حيث كان يتواجد فيها قرابة 600 مهاجر آخرين من جنسيات مختلفة.

We were about to reach the Italian coast, when a ship approached the boat we were boarding. They started pointing towards us. We decided to escape, but the ship lowered a small boat carrying 6 armed men, who chased after our boat and then shot its engine, bringing it to a halt. The ship approached us then, and they transferred us to it, where there were about 600 other immigrants of different nationalities.

The coast guard forces on the ship began confiscating the migrants’ belongings, including money, phones, and passports, throwing some of these items into the sea, according to Walid. Then they transferred the migrants to Tripoli prisons, in a journey that took 10 hours.

“Italy helps the Libyan coast guard intercept immigration boats at sea and illegally detains them in detention centers without the slightest supervision, in addition to subjecting migrants to mistreatment, rape, forced labor and human trafficking,” said Ana Gonzalez-Paramo, senior researcher at the Madrid-based PorCausa Foundation.

Gonzalez-Paramo also indicated that the European Border and Coastal Agency, Frontex, is a very active part of this mechanism, as it sends information about the locations of ships in the Mediterranean Sea from its aerial surveillance missions (drones) to the Libyan Coast Guard, which in turn begins to raid the boats and return migrants to detention centers in Tripoli.

Dire prison conditions

In a press statement issued on August 12, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said that the detainees are living in very poor humanitarian conditions, noting that they are subjected to violations that affect their safety and dignity. The suffering begins from the moment the Libyan Coast Guard intercepts the boats of migrants, beating and humiliating them, until they are placed in detention centers that lack minimum human requirements.

”We eat the food they give us to keep on our feet,” Walid said, adding that the only meal of the day was at ten at night, and was a plate of inedible rice per five people.

He also describes prisons as hangars built of blocks and covered with iron plates, driving up the heat in the place and causing illness among prisoners, adding that “dozens suffered from skin diseases without any health care.”

Walid also said that Mohamed Youssef Barakat, a neighbour of his in his forties from Walid's home village, who was locked up in the same prison, died of hunger and the poor prison conditions. Walid learned of his death hours after leaving the detention centre.

The Euro-Med Monitor's legal researcher, Youssef Salem, held the Libyan government responsible for all the abusive practices that take place inside the prisons and detention centers it runs, according to the statement it issued.

Meanwhile, Baynana did not receive a response to inquiries it sent to Muhammad Hammouda, the official media spokesperson for the GNA in Tripoli, on the detention and torture of migrants.

European cooperation with Libya

In a report issued in July, Amnesty International accused European countries of complicity in these human rights violations, for helping the Libyan Coast Guard intercept people at sea and putting them in detention in Libya, while fully aware of the suffering these migrants face there. The organization called on Europe to end its cooperation with Libya on everything related to the field of migration and border control.

In the July 15 report titled “No one will look for you’: Forcibly returned from sea to abusive detention in Libya,” the organization documented arbitrary arrest, systematic torture, sexual violence for food, forced labor, and exploitation during the first six months of 2021. The report detailed the experiences of 53 refugees and migrants who were detained in centres officially controlled by the Libyan Anti-Illegal Migration Authority.

The researcher Gonzalez-Paramo said:

الاتحاد الأوروبي مسؤول عن همجية ليبيا بشكل مباشر أو من خلال غض النظر عن أفعالها، حيث يتم تمويل الجماعات المسلحة التي تستفيد من المهاجرين، والتواطؤ مع هذه الجرائم يمرّ دون عقاب، بسبب استحالة المطالبة بالمسؤوليات والمساءلة في ديناميات إعادة التوطين أو الاستعانة بمصادر خارجية لمراقبة الهجرة.

 The EU is responsible for Libya’s barbarism directly or by turning a blind eye to its actions, as armed groups that profit from migrants are funded, and complicity in these crimes go unpunished, due to the impossibility of claiming responsibilities and accountability in the resettlement dynamics or outsourcing migration control.

Migrant trafficking

For smugglers to release detained migrants from prisons, the prices they charged varied by the prisons they're held in. According to migrants’ testimonies, the price for release from Ghouta al-Shaal Prison, for example, is 1200 USD, while it is 600 USD for Ain Zara Prison, and 800 USD for Abu Salim Prison.

Walid confirmed to Baynana magazine that he and his colleagues paid 850 USD per person to local agents in the prison and those linked to smugglers and prison officials in exchange for their release, describing “the issue as akin to human trafficking mafias.”

As for 17-year-old Ahmed, his father and brother went out of their way to pay the 1200 USD to get him out of prison, and, to this day, he is still receiving treatment in Tripoli to recover from the inhumane conditions he was subjected to during his detention in Libyan prisons.

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