Refugees suf­fer as traf­fick­ers ex­ploit chaos

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

ZAWIYAH: Libya, the big­gest jump­ing-off point for refugees try­ing to reach Europe, is now home to a thriv­ing trade in hu­mans. Un­able to pay ex­or­bi­tant smug­gling fees or swin­dled by traf­fick­ers, some of the world’s most des­per­ate peo­ple are be­ing held as slaves, tor­tured or forced into pros­ti­tu­tion.

Their de­te­ri­o­rat­ing plight raises ques­tions about EU agree­ments to stem the flow of refugees. Un­der these deals, Libya was promised more than $225 mil­lion (R2.9bn) to en­force stricter bor­der con­trols and main­tain refugee as­sis­tance cen­tres that re­spect “in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian stan­dards.”

Last week, Libya’s Western-backed gov­ern­ment asked Euro­pean lead­ers in Brus­sels for more money to cope with the cri­sis.

But in­stead of get­ting bet­ter treat­ment, refugees found at sea are be­ing re­turned to Libya to face more ex­ploita­tion and vi­o­lence.

Mean­while, the num­ber of refugees de­part­ing from Libya is surg­ing, with more than 70 000 ar­riv­ing in Italy so far this year, a 28% in­crease over the same pe­riod last year.

More than 2 000 have drowned cross­ing the Mediter­ranean Sea, and the sum­mer peak sea­son for sea cross­ings is just start­ing.

At the two main gov­ern­ment-run de­ten­tion cen­tres in Tripoli and a third in the coastal city of Zawiyah that is con­trolled by a mili­tia al­legedly in­volved in hu­man traf­fick­ing, refugees re­vealed how sys­tem­atic and clan­des­tine the trade in mi­grants has be­come.

“They are not treated like hu­mans,” said Ahmed Tabawi War­dako, a Libyan tribal leader and com­mu­nity ac­tivist in the south­ern city of Sabha. “They are treated like mer­chan­dise.”

EU of­fi­cials are work­ing with in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions and the Libyan gov­ern­ment to ad­dress the con­cerns, spokesper­son Cather­ine Ray said.

“We are aware of the un­ac­cept­able con­di­tions in which some mi­grants are treated, in de­ten­tion or re­cep­tion cen­tres in Libya,” she said. “And we do not turn a blind eye to it.”

For decades, African refugees flocked to this oil-pro­duc­ing coun­try in search of work. Re­ports of abuse, in­clud­ing slav­ery-like con­di­tions, by Libyan em­ploy­ers abounded. But the sit­u­a­tion wors­ened af­ter the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the top­pling of dic­ta­tor Muam­mar Gaddafi.

Awash with weapons, the state col­lapsed. In the chaos, bor­ders and coast­lines were left un­pa­trolled, and crime and traf­fick­ing by well-armed mili­tias along mi­grant routes grew.

Now, hu­man traf­fick­ing is a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness in­volv­ing count­less mili­tias and in­flu­en­tial tribes, ac­tivists and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials say.

The Western-backed gov­ern­ment ex­erts lit­tle author­ity out­side the cap­i­tal, Tripoli, and in­fight­ing is ram­pant within some of its min­istries.

It com­petes with two other gov­ern­ments, and none has real author­ity in the south­ern part of the coun­try, where most refugees are smug­gled through.

“No one even thinks about mak­ing ar­rests in the south,” War­dako said. “The hu­man traf­fick­ers have lots of money. They buy off peo­ple, in­clud­ing the po­lice and lo­cal of­fi­cials.”

An over­crowded cell in the Al Nasr de­ten­tion cen­tre for refugees in Zawiyah, Libya.

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