By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Libya researcher
In Libya, undocumented Sub-Saharan Africans have never had it easy.
During Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s rule, they were at risk of arrest, indefinite detention, torture or other ill-treatment and exploitation.
Far from changing their fate, last year’s “17 February Revolution” left Sub-Saharan Africans vulnerable to similar abuses. In fact, their situation is arguably even more precarious now in light of the prevailing security vacuum, the widespread availability of weapons, and the proliferation of armed militias acting with impunity and outside the framework of the law. Foreign nationals are now at the mercy of whichever militia hold them and have no access to justice and redress for abuses.
David (not his real name), a 42-year-old Nigerian man, told Amnesty International how one night in August 2011 a group of armed men in military dress entered his home without a warrant and beat him with sticks and gun-butts. He was then shot in the leg.
He was beaten again in detention. He recalled how one night in December 2011, he was dragged out of his cell by a group of guards, handcuffed, suspended from a metal gate and beaten with a water pipe.
David is still languishing in jail with no contact with his family. “I have lived and worked in many countries, but Libya now is the worst,” he said. “Here, you don’t know who is police, who are armed gangs, and there is no-one to help you.”
In another detention centre, a Chadian national showed the scars on his back, which he said were from beatings with wooden sticks and metal rods in March 2012. He explained that he was punished for trying to escape. His cellmates also complained that the guards occasionally beat them for “mistakes” such as requesting medical treatment, complaining about lack of hygiene or inquiring about their fate.
A group of detainees recounted how a Nigerian man was beaten to death in the centre in early May 2012.
Even though the violence and abuses faced by foreign nationals in Libya have been well documented, people are still driven there out of desperation and a desire to escape persecution or poverty.
In southern Libya, local officials and residents said that new arrivals enter the country’s porous and largely uncontrolled southern borders every day. They mainly use two routes: through Sabha for those coming from western Africa, or through Kufra for those arriving from Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
Migrants have spoken to Amnesty International of their long and dangerous journeys.
Some said that they had been abandoned in the middle of the desert by smugglers. Left without a compass and kilometres away from the nearest city, they were forced to finish their trip on foot, under the scorching sun.
A 24-year-old man from Cameroon, who has been in Libya for three months, said that as his family’s sole breadwinner, he was forced to leave home due to the lack of job opportunities there.
Two weeks after his arrival in Libya, a group of armed men in plain clothes arrested him for entering the country without a visa, and he has been held ever since. He complained about being forced into labour while in detention. Every day he is forced to do odd jobs, including offloading munitions.
A Malian man held at the same detention centre described being “a modern-day slave” – forced to work, subjected to racist insults and beaten for “disobeying” his captors.
In other detention centres, foreign nationals described being offered labour schemes, which pay wages for their work. In other cases, detainees are released into the custody of a Libyan employer. Some complained about not being paid or being paid lower rates than originally promised. A senior official in Benghazi admitted that detention centres for irregular migrants were becoming a “business”.
Libya’s detention centres for foreign nationals remain outside government control.
One such centre in Gharyan is run by a local militia. It holds more than 1,000 foreign nationals from Sub-Saharan African countries including Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Chad.
Most of the detainees were arrested at nearby checkpoints as they were making their way to the capital Tripoli, some 100 kilometres to the north.
At Gharyan, men, women and children are held in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.
In fact, at all the detention centres Amnesty International visited – in Tripoli, Ganfouda and Kufra – administrators and guards complained about limited resources. Several were not paid salaries and relied on the work of “volunteers”.
Libya does not recognize the right to seek asylum, and has yet to sign the UN Convention on Refugees. This means that in practice asylum-seekers and refugees are treated like irregular migrants.
Detention centre officials do acknowledge that nationals from Eritrea and Somalia cannot be forcibly returned to their home countries. However, no uniform approach exists for addressing the situation of individuals in need of international protection.
In Gharyan detention centre, Somalis and Eritreans are released once their embassies confirm their nationality and sign “attestations” – a highly problematic practice for those fleeing persecution in their home country. The prison director told us that if these detainees are re-arrested they are “fined” 1,000 dinars (around US$780). No money, no freedom.
Just like during Colonel al-Gaddafi’s rule, European countries continue to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Libya when they help to stem the flow of migrants to their shores.
In the meantime, asylum-seekers and migrants are left to languish indefinitely in Libyan detention centres, where they remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Read more:‘Not what we fought for’: Endemic beatings and torture in the new Libya (Blog, 22 May 2012)
Libya: Militias threaten hopes for new Libya (Report, 16 February 2012)