Refugees suffer as traffickers exploit chaos
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.