‘I thought I was going to die’: Jailed and ransomed in Libya

It was called “Morning Tea” – a brutal flogging with a hosepipe.

Every morning for four months, Seun Femi’s captors beat him at a makeshift prison in Libya.

“They would flog my head, my hands, my bum,” says the 34-year-old. “The guard would beat me until he got tired.”

Two of Seun’s fingers were broken during one of the brutal sessions. But the Nigerian says it could have been far worse. One man was beaten to death in front of him.

“I thought I was going to die in that prison,” he says.

Seun was one of the tens of thousands of West Africans who cross the Sahara Desert into Libya every year, from where they hope to be trafficked by boat to Europe.

Desperate journey

The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) estimates there are between 700,000 and one million people in Libya awaiting their chance to cross the Mediterranean.

It was always a dark and desperate journey but now appears to be increasingly dangerous as undocumented migrants fall prey to militias and criminal gangs in war-torn Libya.

Earlier this year, the IOM reported that African migrants were being sold by their captors in “slave markets” in the south-western Libyan city of Sabha.

It was in the same city that Seun says he was held with about 300 other African migrants for ransom.

“We thought the traffickers were taking us to a place to stay and not a place to lock us up,” he says.

Seun says a hunchbacked Libyan called Ali ran the makeshift prison.

It was a half-constructed building. The male migrants, mainly from Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, were separated into large rooms, each called a ghetto. Seun was held in the Nigeria ghetto.

In two of the ghettos, called Ghana and VIP (for very important person), the guards would extort a higher ransom in order for the migrants to be freed.

“We were packed on the floor like sardines when we tried to sleep,” says Seun.

There was little food but enough bottled water as otherwise the migrants would die of thirst in the stifling heat.

The brutal business model was simple, says Seun. Guards with nicknames like “Rambo” would beat the migrants and then hand them a phone.

“They would let us phone our people once a day,” he said. “They would whip us while we were on the call so our families would get the message. We would beg them to send us money.”

On Tuesday, the Italian authorities said they had arrested a notorious human trafficker known as Rambo on charges of torturing and killing migrants but it is not possible to verify whether it was the same man.

‘He helped me’

Seun needed to a pay a ransom of approximately $500. It was to be deposited in a bank account in Nigeria. But he did not have the money. He urged his ex-girlfriend to sell his car.

“It was in bad shape. It took three months for her to sell it,” says Seun. “There were no buyers.”

The irony is that Seun, a taxi driver, had no money to repair the vehicle in the first place, which is why he decided to go to Libya.

His ransom was finally paid last December. Seun thought he was free.

But then he was told he needed to pay a “gate-fee” of approximately $50. He had no money. But a Nigerian baker who sold bread at the prison took pity on him and paid the fee.

“He helped me a lot by taking me out of that place – it’s bad, very bad,” says Seun.

Seun then paid the man back by working in his bakery for several weeks in Sabha.

He then pushed on to Tripoli but was detained by Libyan police earlier this year and held at a detention centre. He was repatriated to Nigeria in April.

Now back in Lagos, he has no work, and rents a small dark room in one of the city’s sprawling slums. He is trying to piece his life back together.

He hopes to raise cash to buy a car and work as a taxi driver again. He wants to move to a better area so his young daughter can visit. He regrets ever setting out to Europe.

“The desert is such a dangerous place,” he says. “Many people died on the way. No-one should follow that path.”

Africans trying to reach Europe are being sold by their captors in “slave markets” in Libya, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says.

Victims told IOM that after being detained by people smugglers or militia groups, they were taken to town squares or car parks to be sold.

Migrants with skills like painting or tiling would fetch higher prices, the head of the IOM in Libya told the BBC.

Libya has been in chaos since the 2011 Nato-backed ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.

Migrants ‘forced to starve’

A Senegalese migrant, who was not named to protect his identity, said that he had been sold at one such market in the southern Libyan city of Sabha, before being taken to a makeshift prison where more than 100 migrants were being held hostage.

He said that migrants held at the facility were told to call their families, who would be asked for money to pay for their release, and some were beaten while on the phone to allow relatives to hear them being tortured.

He described “dreadful” conditions where migrants were forced to survive on limited food supplies, with those unable to pay either killed or left to starve, the report adds.

Libya exposed as child migrant abuse hubWhy is Libya lawless?Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionMigrants have to survive on limited food supplies, according to the IOM report

Another witness, who was able to raise the funds needed for his release after nine months, was later taken to hospital with severe malnutrition, weighing just 5.5 stone (35 kg).

Women, too, were bought by private Libyan clients and brought to homes where they were forced to be sex slaves, the witness said.

The IOM’s chief of mission for Libya, Othman Belbeisi, told the BBC that those sold into slavery found themselves priced according to their abilities.

“Apparently they don’t have money and their families cannot pay the ransom, so they are being sold to get at least a minimum benefit from that,” he said.

“The price is definitely different depending on your qualifications, for example if you can do painting or tiles or some specialised work then the price gets higher.”

Image copyrightAFPImage captionMany thousands of migrants each year try to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean

An IOM staff member in Niger said they confirmed the reports of auctions in Libya with several other migrants who had escaped.

“They all confirmed the risks of been sold as slaves in squares or garages in Sabha, either by their drivers or by locals who recruit the migrants for daily jobs in town, often in construction.

“Later, instead of paying them, [they] sell their victims to new buyers.”

Some migrants, mainly Nigerians, Ghanaians and Gambians are forced to work “as guards in the ransom houses or in the ‘market’ itself”, the IOM employee added.

The organisation has called the emergence of these markets “a disturbing new trend in the already dire situation for migrants in Libya”.

In February, the UN children’s agency Unicef released a report documenting – in sometimes horrific detail – stories of slavery, violence and sexual abuse experienced by large numbers of vulnerable children travelling from Libya to Italy.

The report, A Deadly Journey for Children, said that almost 26,000 children – most of them unaccompanied – crossed the Mediterranean in 2016, many of them suffering abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

Tens of thousands of migrants arrived in Italy last year by sea, crossing from North Africa. But before they reach the jumping-off point in Libya, many migrants will have undertaken a perilous journey of up to six days across the Sahara in extreme temperatures.

Libya exposed as an epicentre for migrant child abuse

By Paul AdamsBBC News

28 February 2017

 From the sectionAfrica

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Image copyrightUNICEF/ROMENZIImage captionMany migrant children are kept in detention centres in Libya

The United Nations has warned that large numbers of children are still risking their lives to make the dangerous journey from Libya to Italy.

Unicef says almost 26,000 children – most of them unaccompanied – crossed the Mediterranean last year.

In its new report, Unicef says many children suffer from violence and sexual abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

But they rarely report their abuse, for fear of arrest and deportation.

The agency also says there is a lack of food, water and medical care in Libya’s detention centres.

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The plight of children, many of them unaccompanied by parents, has become a tragically familiar part of the wider story of mass migration over the past two years.

But while much has been said about the extreme dangers faced at sea, the privations experienced on land, especially in Libya, are less familiar.

Unicef’s latest report, A Deadly Journey for Children, documents – in sometimes horrific detail – stories of slavery, violence and sexual abuse experienced by huge numbers of vulnerable children making their perilous way to Italy.

“What really shocked Unicef staff and me… is what happens to them [children] on this route,” says Justin Forsyth, the organisation’s deputy executive director. “Many of these children have been brutalised, raped, killed on this route.”

Girls such as nine-year-old Kamis, who set off with her mother from their home in Nigeria. After a desert crossing in which a man died, followed by a dramatic rescue at sea, they found themselves held at a detention centre in the Libyan town of Sabratha.

“They used to beat us every day,” Kamis told the researchers. “There was no water there either. That place was very sad. There’s nothing there.”

Much of the violence is gratuitous, and much of it is sexual.

“Nearly half the women and children interviewed had experienced sexual abuse during migration,” the report says. “Often multiple times and in multiple locations.”

Italy a haven from killings and kidnaps’Push’ factor drives migrants to Europe

Borders, it seems, are particularly dangerous.

“Sexual violence was widespread and systemic at crossings and checkpoints,” says the report.

Many of the assailants are in uniform. This is said to be just one reason why those who suffer abuse are reluctant to report their experiences.

And Libya, as the funnel through which so many journeys pass, has earned itself a shocking reputation as the epicentre of abuse.

“Approximately one third [of those interviewed] indicated they had been abused in Libya,” the report says. “A large majority of these children did not answer when asked who had abused them.”

Image copyrightUNICEF / ROMENZIImage captionMigrants look out from behind bars in a Libyan detention centre

So commonplace are stories of rape and sexual enslavement that some women embarking on the journey take precautions, such as getting contraceptive injections and carrying emergency protection with them.

The report maps 34 known detention centres in Libya, three of them deep in the country’s desert interior.

Most are run by the government’s Department for Combating Illegal Migration. But Unicef says that armed groups also hold migrants in an unknown number of unofficial camps.

“The detention centres run by militias, we’re much more worried about,” says Mr Forsyth. “That’s where a lot of abuse is happening and we have very, very limited access.”

In 2016, more than 180,000 migrants crossed from Libya to Italy. According to the UN, almost 26,000 of these were children, most of them unaccompanied. The number of unaccompanied children appears to be soaring.

“It’s a combination of factors,” says Mr Forsyth. “The situation in places like Eritrea and northern Nigeria is very bad. Also in the Gambia recently.”

‘I wanted to cross the sea’

Politics aside, poverty and the promise of a better life remain key drivers.

“I wanted to cross the sea,” 14-year-old Issaa told researchers. “Look for work, work hard to earn a bit of money to help my five brothers at home.”

But two and a half years after leaving home in Niger, Issaa was found living alone in a Libyan detention centre.

“My father collected money for my journey, he wished me luck and then let me go.”

The migrants are, of course, heavily dependent on smugglers to get them through the desert and across the sea.

Image copyrightUNICEF / ROMENZIImage captionMigrants in Libya run the risk of getting drawn into gangs or prostitution rings

A recent case when dozens bodies were found washed upon the shore near the western city Zawiya shows that this remains extremely hazardous.

But smuggling is all-too often associated with human trafficking. Victims accept migration packages from criminal gangs, only to find themselves forced into prostitution to repay their debts.

“Libya is a major transit hub for women being trafficked to Europe for sex,” the report says.

Libya’s continuing political turmoil makes it extraordinarily difficult to tackle a phenomenon, which the report says has spiralled out of control.

But Unicef is urging Libya, its neighbours and regional organisations to do more to protect children.

A regional initiative, it says, would include improved birth registration, the prevention of trafficking, safe and legal pathways for children fleeing armed conflict and, where appropriate, family reunification.

“Whether they’re migrants or refugees, let’s treat them like children,” says Mr Forsyth. “It’s a reflection of our humanity, our values, how we respond to this crisis.”

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