Migrants bound for Europe create crisis in Libya’s southern deserts

In a hospital trauma ward in downtown Sebha, a decrepit city that’s a major migrant-smuggling hub in southern Libya, a man from Niger lay in a stupor, suffering from multiple fractures and a gangrened limb. He’d been here a week, since he was rescued from the Sahara after the vehicle that he and other migrants had chartered to take them across the desert crashed.

“Many migrants come here from desert car accidents and are wounded and dehydrated,” said emergency room doctor Mariam al Amrawi. “We also have cases of migrants who were abducted, and tortured and beaten for money.”

While the world is focused on the drama of African migrants drowning at sea in their efforts to reach Europe, little attention is paid to the crisis that’s unfolding along Libya’s porous southern frontier and perilous desert, where thousands cross in hopes of reaching the coast and a smuggler’s boat to Europe.

The European Union has asked member nations to approve asylum for 40,000 Syrians and Eritreans who’ve arrived in Europe by boat, and it’s exploring ways to strike at the smugglers who take them there. But little is being done in Libya to stanch the migrant flow in a nation where the state is disintegrating and violence is mounting.

The French military has positioned itself in Niger near the Libyan border, but its focus is on stopping marauding terrorists and protecting economic interests, including a vast uranium mine nearby. Security also has been ramped up along the border with Algeria, though drugs, not migrants, are the priority.

Almost nothing is being done to halt the illicit traffic that comes across Libya’s southwest border hundreds of miles due south of Sebha, not just people mostly from West African nations, but also drugs, weapons, gasoline and food.

In Libya’s southeast, the Kufra district is where many Eritreans and Somalis fleeing war in their East African countries come across.

Depending on the region, the smugglers are indigenous Tebu, Tuareg and local Arabs, familiar with traversing the harsh and vast desert terrain in soaring temperatures. The indigenous Tebu, who suffered state-sanctioned discrimination under strongman Moammar Gadhafi, are plying a trade they learned when they were given few opportunities for legitimate work. The Tuareg, who often served in Gadhafi’s army, were left bereft of a central authority after his toppling and the decline of the state.

“We need more guns, more cars and to be paid,” said BuBaker Embarak, a Tuareg border guard with Brigade 411, the Libyan force stretched thin along the Algerian border. Migrants are not a top priority, he said.

“We are looking for drugs, mostly. We have also caught migrants. But we don’t have enough support,” he said. “There are young children and women; we can’t put them in jail without any food or water. So we let them go.” 

Since the revolution toppled Gadhafi in 2011, Libya has split between two warring governments, with armed groups and criminal networks flourishing in the chaos.

There’s virtually no international presence in Libya, as agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration moved most operations to Tunisia after fierce fighting in the capital last year. That means little protection for migrants traversing Libya.

According to Amnesty International, militia abductions of sub-Saharan migrants for ransom are on the rise along various smuggling routes. In a report, the advocacy group said “migrants and refugees are also held captive for ransom by the smugglers themselves, either in the desert near Libya’s southern borders or along the smuggling route near the city of Sebha.”

Amnesty reported that smugglers usually ask for $4,000 to $5,000 before allowing the migrants to continue their journeys. They often “subject migrants and refugees to beatings with sticks, stones, rifle butts and knives to coerce them and their families into paying the requested sum,” the organization said. Their captivity can last days to a month.

Migrants line Sebha’s dusty, broken streets under the harsh sun, hoping to be picked up for a day’s work and a little pay. Those unlucky enough to be caught by authorities languish in a nearby detention center, awaiting an uncertain fate.

The detention centers along key southern smuggling routes in the isolated desert towns of Murzuq, Qatroun, Shati, Ghat, Ubari and Jufra – under the control of the underfunded central government’s Department to Combat Illegal Migration – are now closed. Sebha officials said that theirs, with a newly renovated wing financed by authorities from the city of Misrata, was the only holding pen open in the area.

Walid Mansour, a security official at the Sebha facility, said migrants and asylum seekers were bused here from Libya’s north. The plan is to repatriate them over the border in Niger.

Nesserat, a 28-year-old from Asmara in Eritrea who wouldn’t give her full name, broke down in tears when she talked about her family back home. Her luck had changed for the worse with the closure of the charity Merlin, where she worked as a cleaner in Khartoum, Sudan. She was left jobless and on the run.

She’d paid $1,800 to arrive in Sebha in an overcrowded Toyota pickup that had crossed the desert with little water and no food. Now she worried about her two children and sick mother she’d left behind.

“We ask why do they detain migrants? Migrants are not criminals. They need to regularize the process,” Othman Belbeisi said over the phone from Tunis, where as head of the Libya mission of the International Organization for Migration he charters flights for the voluntary repatriation of migrants from Libya to Senegal. “Most centers in the south are closed,” he said. “The managers say they don’t have the means because of the security situation; others say they don’t have the financial means to keep the place up.”

Indeed, the Tripoli-based government has publicly said it’s overwhelmed by the steep increase in the number of migrants crossing the country to take boats to Italy and Malta, and it’s called on the international community, which generally doesn’t recognize its legitimacy, to assist with borders and facilities, as well as to fight the growing threat from Islamic State militants.

The internationally recognized Tobruk-based government in the east, in turn, has called for lifting the arms embargo on Libya to better fight smugglers and terrorists. According to one high-level European diplomat who’s close to the United Nations-led peace talks, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, the east has “lost credibility” with repeated claims of conquering Tripoli soon.

He also thinks the Tripoli-based government is hoping that by asking for help it will win indirect international recognition.

Both governments strongly oppose unilateral military strikes by EU countries on smuggling boats along Libyan shores, one of the proposals the EU has put forth.

“The whole country is upside down,” said Ghanian pastor Edward Blasu, whose church is tucked in a Tripoli suburb hundreds of miles north of Sebha.

That morning, news had rippled through his congregation – many of whom had just made the desert trip –about the murder of one of their own, who was pulled from his car and beaten to death by armed men.

Blasu said the community tried to protect against abuses, including trafficked women forced to work as prostitutes out of safe houses. “We sent one girl back to Ghana six weeks ago. She owed the traffickers $3,500 and had to pay it off. A Ghanaian man smuggled her out of the house. Then we got involved.”

He laughed at the EU recommendation for military strikes on smugglers. “Who will they strike, fishermen or smugglers?”

“They need to establish an office here and interview migrants about which country they want to work in. Then they will go by plane, not by boat, and legally, within a program,” he said. “This will remove human rights abuses.”