Zintan, Libya—The smell of feces grew stronger as we walked toward the gate of the main building of the Dhar-el-Jebel detention complex, about 100 miles southwest of Tripoli in the Nefusa Mountains. A sewage problem, the director explained apologetically.
He unlocked the metal gate to the concrete warehouse, which housed about 500 detainees, nearly all from Eritrea. The asylum-seekers were lying on gray mattresses strewn across the floor. At the end of one mat-free alley, men lined up to urinate in one of 11 buckets.
No one in this room, a detainee told me on my first visit in May 2019, had seen sunlight since September 2018, when about 1,000 incarcerated migrants were moved here so they would be safe from fighting in Tripoli. Zintan, the nearest town, is away from the militia violence in Libya’s capital, but it’s also far from the eyes of international agencies. The migrants say they have been largely forgotten.
Across Libya, about 5,000 asylum-seekers are still being held indefinitely in some 10 main official detention centers, nominally run by the Department for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). In reality, since the fall of dictator Moammar El-Gadhafi in 2011, Libya has had no stable government, and the administration of these centers has fallen to various militias. Without a functioning government, migrants in Libya have routinely been kidnapped, forced into slave work, and tortured for ransom.
Since 2017, the European Union has been funding the Libyan Coast Guard to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, where many claim asylum. With EU equipment and training, Libyan security forces are capturing and locking up migrants in detention centers—some of which are in war zones and others in places where guards are known to sell migrants to traffickers.
Many of those fleeing oppressive regimes feel abandoned by the international agencies and have no money to bribe their way out. “Europe says they return us here for our safety,” said Gebray (a pseudonym, for his safety), an Eritrean detainee in Dhar-el-Jebel. “Why don’t they let us die in the sea, without pain? It’s better for us than to leave us here to die.”
Unlike other detention facilities I visited in Libya, the Dhar-el-Jebel center does not look like a prison. Before 2011, the series of large houses in the countryside was, according to official language, a training center for the “buds, cubs, and forearms of the Great Liberator”—the children who were taught Gadhafi’s Green Book, a short manual of the dictator’s mandatory teachings. When the Tripoli-based GNA was formed in 2016, the center came under the authority of the DCIM.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF), with whom I was working as a project coordinator, started to see patients in Dhar-el-Jebel in April. At the time, the center held some 700 migrants. Most were registered as asylum-seekers by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but according to Libyan law they were “illegal” migrants and could be detained indefinitely.
With little hope of leaving, several had tried to kill themselves by touching electric cables. Others had placed their faith in God, social media, and their do-it-yourself skills. Most Eritrean detainees are Christians; on the wall facing the door, they had built an Abyssinian Orthodox church with colored food cartons, green UNHCR mats, and candle wax crosses. On other mattresses they had written, with tomato paste and red pepper, slogans such as “We are victim by UNHCR in Libya.” Using smartphones, they posted photos on social media, posing in front with their arms crossed to show they were prisoners.
A week later, their efforts did attract some attention. On June 3, the UNHCR evacuated 96 asylum-seekers to Tripoli. The crowded warehouse in which I had first met the migrants, at least, was emptied, but 450 Eritreans remained, packed into other buildings at the complex. Today, they squeeze 20 people into each of the more than 20 smaller rooms, though many detainees prefer to sleep in courtyards in tents made from blankets.
Most Eritreans at Dhar-el-Jebel have similar stories: Before being trapped in Libya’s indefinite detention system, they fled the Eritrean dictatorship, where military service is mandatory. In 2017, Gebray, a man in his early 30s, left his wife and son in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and paid smugglers $1,600 to cross the Sudanese desert into Libya with dozens of others. But the smugglers sold them to Libyan traffickers who held them captive and tortured them with electric shocks until they phoned their relatives to pay ransoms. After 10 months in jail, Gebray told me, his family transferred nearly $10,000 for his release: “My mother and my sisters had to sell their jewels. I have now to pay them back. It’s very hard to talk of this.”
Many Libyan traffickers believe Eritrean migrants can get support from a rich diaspora in Europe and North America, so they’re often specifically targeted. “We’re the poorest, but Libyans think we’re rich. They call us Dollars and Euros,” another Eritrean asylum-seeker told me.
After surviving torture, many, like Gebray, paid again to cross the sea but were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and placed in detention centers. Some of Gebray’s cellmates have been held for over two years in as many as five different centers. As crossing the sea became more perilous, some gave themselves up to detention centers in the hope of being registered there by the UNHCR.
In the Dhar-el-Jebel warehouse, Gebray found a former schoolmate called Habtom, who had become a dentist. With his medical background, Habtom had self-diagnosed himself with tuberculosis. After four months coughing, he was moved from the warehouse to a smaller house for the sickest Eritreans. Gebray, who said by that point he was “not able to walk, not even to the toilets,” soon followed him there. When I visited, about 90 Eritreans, most of whom were suspected of having tuberculosis, were confined to the sick house, where they received no proper treatment.
Once uncommon in Libya, TB has rapidly spread among migrants in the crowded prisons. When I spoke with Gebray, he advised me to put on a mask: “I have been sleeping and eating with TB cases, including Habtom.”
Habtom passed away in December 2018. “If I get the chance to reach Europe, I’ll help his family, it’s my responsibility,” said Gebray. Between September 2018 and May 2019, at least 22 detainees from Dhar-el-Jebel died, mostly from TB.
There were doctors present at the detention center some from the International Organization for Migration and others from International Medical Corps (IMC), a US charity funded by both the UNHCR and the EU. According to a Libyan official, “we begged them to refer detainees to hospitals, but they said they don’t have budget.” Few referrals took place.
Instead, about 40 of the sickest detainees, mostly Christians, were transferred to another detention center in Gharyan, which was closer to a Christian cemetery. “People were sent to Gharyan to die,” Gebray said. (Eight of them died between January and May.)
Unlike Dhar-el-Jebel, Gharyan looks like a detention center: a collection of shipping containers surrounded by tall metal fences. Yemane (also a pseudonym) was transferred there in January: “The detention center director and IMC staff told us they’ll bring us to a Tripoli hospital. They didn’t mention Gharyan.… When we arrived, we were immediately locked in a container.”
According to Yemane, a woman tried to hang herself when she found out she was in Gharyan, not a Tripoli hospital as IMC doctors had promised. Many had bad memories from Gharyan: In 2018, masked gunmen forced their way in, tied up the only guard, and seized some 150 migrants. They were sold to torture centers, where captors demanded $20,000 each from their families. After the kidnapping, the remaining migrants refused to return to their cells and requested the UN to evacuate them. In response, local militias shot five detainees.
At that point, the GNA briefly closed the detention center, but it soon reopened with a new director, who told me that traffickers were calling him to try and purchase some of the migrants under his care.
In April 2019, forces under eastern Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive against pro-GNA forces in Tripoli and captured Gharyan. Haftar’s troops settled near the detention center, and GNA aircraft regularly bombed the area. The guards, likely afraid of the air attacks, deserted. Each time I visited, we picked up the director from his house in town and drove to the center’s gate, where he called a migrant to open. The detainees had asked for a padlock so that they could lock others out. Pro-Haftar forces used to visit and ask migrants to work for them. Yemane said they once abducted 15 men, who were never seen again.
MSF requested that the UNHCR evacuate the Gharyan detainees. The UN agency first denied that Gharyan was in a war zone, but then relented and suggested transferring the detainees to Al-Nasr detention center in Zawiya, west of Tripoli. The UN Security Council has accused the forces controlling that facility of trafficking migrants, and placed two of their leaders under sanctions. In the end, the detainees remained.
On June 26, GNA forces recaptured Gharyan. The next day, they broke the detention center’s locked gate with a car and asked the migrants to fight for them. The scared detainees showed their TB medications and said Arabic words that UNHCR officers had taught them—kaha (cough) and darn (tuberculosis). The gunmen went away, but not before one of them warned, “If you’re sick, we’ll come again and shoot you. You must die!”
On July 4, the UNHCR finally evacuated the remaining detainees to Tripoli. The UN gave the migrants 450 dinars (about $100) to pay for expenses in a city they didn’t know. The shelter that was supposed to accommodate them turned out to be too costly, so they moved to a cheaper place, which normally housed sheep. “UNHCR says we’re going to live safe in this city, but for us, Libya is neither free nor safe,” Yemane said.
Most of the 29 migrants evacuated from Gharyan are now stranded, and unsafe, on the streets of Tripoli, while they still cling to the hope that they could get asylum. As fighting in Tripoli is ongoing, militias asked Yemane to enlist with them for $1,000 a month. “I saw many migrants who were recruited that way and then injured,” he told me recently on WhatsApp. Two of his roommates were jailed again by militias and asked to pay $200 each.
The Gharyan migrants are so scared of living on the Tripoli streets that they requested to return to prison, and one of them managed to enter the Abu Salim detention center. Many of them have tuberculosis; Yemane himself discovered he was positive in late October and has yet to receive any treatment.
Unlike Gharyan, Dhar-el-Jebel is away from the fighting. But since April, migrants have refused to be transferred there, fearing they would then be forgotten in Zintan. According to a Zintan official, “Our only problem here is UNHCR are not doing their job. They gave these people fake promises for two years.”
Most detainees in Dhar-el-Jebel have been registered as asylum-seekers by the UNHCR, and as a result they hope to be resettled to safe host countries. Gebray registered in October 2018 in Dhar-el-Jebel: “Since then, I didn’t see UNHCR. They gave us false hopes that they will come back shortly to interview us and resettle us out of Libya.”
The 96 Eritreans and Somalians the UNHCR transferred from Dhar-el-Jebel to the agency’s “gathering and departure facility” in Tripoli in June were convinced they would be among the happy few who would be prioritized for resettlement to Europe or North America. But in October, the UNHCR reportedly rejected about 60 among them, including 23 women and six children. Their choice is now to try to survive in Tripoli streets, or to accept “voluntary return” to the countries whose violence they fled.
The report of the June UN visit to Zintan during this transfer had warned that “the number that UNHCR will actually be able to evacuate will be very small compared to the overall remaining population [in Dhar-el-Jebel] due to limited slots offered by the international community.”
For now, the UNHCR has registered 60,000 asylum-seekers in Libya, but has been able to resettle only about 2,000 per year. The refugee agency’s ability to resettle asylum-seekers from Libya is dependent on offers by safe, mostly European, host countries. Even the EU countries most open to accepting them are only welcoming a few hundred of those stranded in Libya each year. And the United States’ diminishing commitment to refugee resettlement does not help.
Dhar-el-Jebel detainees are aware of this: During another protest, their tomato-paste slogans targeted Europe: “We condemn EU policy on innocent detainee refugees in Libya.”