Friday, 25 September 2009

Libya: Inside The Detention Centres

Second part of a two part article (with Italy: Abandon Hope All Who Sail Near) on Italian-Libyan cooperation to block the Libya - Lampedusa/Malta migration route.

On May 14 Libya took delivery of three patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza as part of a deal struck between the Gadaffi and Berlusconi regimes to try and block one of the main clandestine migration routes into southern Europe via Italy. The loan of the three boats, to be followed by 3 more later this year, is part of Italy's new 'push-back' policy that involves the Libyans intercepting boats leaving their coastal waters in addition to accepting migrants that have been intercepted by Italian naval forces and returned to Libya. These returnees are immediately locked up in the numerous prisons and detention centres doted along Libya's Mediterranean coast.

Since Libya 'came in from the cold' in 2004, the EU, and Italy in particular, has been increasingly involving the country in its overall policy of outsourcing its immigration and asylum effort. Deals have been signed and money and equipment handed over, channelled via Frontex and the International Organisation for Migration, in exchange for patrolling Europe's southern border and for increasing the rate of deportation of migrants back to sub-Saharan countries.*

The 3 patrol boats are used to monitor the most popular setting-off point for Lampedusa and Sicily, the sparsely populated coastline between the Tunisian border and Sabratah, a stretch of coast already monitored by a police tent sited on the beach, every ten kilometres. This blanket coverage has been very effective, intercepting 500 boats in its first week of operation and provoking a fall-off in clandestine traffic, with only 400 boats interdicted in the following 8 weeks. Inevitably, migrants will be forced to risk longer and more hazardous sea crossings to try and circumvent the patrols, with the obvious consequence being more deaths.


“There are no refugees in Libya,” Brigadier General Mohamed Bashir Al Shabbani, director of the Office of Immigration at the General People’s Committee for Public Security, told Human Rights Watch. “They are people who sneak into the country illegally and they cannot be described as refugees.” And according to current estimates, there are two million of these "people who sneak into the country illegally" living precarious in Libya.

Unlike Italy and the rest of the EU, Libya itself is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Therefore, if you are not a Libyan citizen or do not hold a valid visa, you are liable to be detained and disappear into Libya's notorious prison system alongside those migrants who have been forcibly returned by Italy. Even if you do manage to avoid the ubiquitous police patrols and survive the 8 months wait for an appointment with the UNHCR, who themselves have only been operating in Libya since 2008, any refugee papers issued are effectively worthless as refugees routinely have them torn up by the police after their arrest. And once inside the prison system, as a diplomatic source in Libya told Human Rights Watch, migrants can be detained for anything “from a few weeks to 20 years.”

Libya's Gulags

There are believed to be at least 28 facilities used to hold migrant detainees. These fall into 3 types: concentration camps, like those of Sebha, Kufrah and Misratah, where migrants and refugees are concentrated waiting for their deportation. Then there are smaller facilities, such as Qatrun, Shat, Ghat, many ols warehouses where they are held for a shorter periods before being sent to the bigger camps. The remainder of these facilities however are the prisons: Jadida, Fellah, Ain Zarah and Kufar. Conditions in them are uniformly bad; foul drinking water, bad food, no chance to wash, overcrowded, constant beatings, often with cattle-prods and many women detainees raped by guards. The exceptions are a select handful of 'show home' prison and even these the Libyan authorities are reluctant to allow organisations such as the UNHCR to visit.

So, when Human Rights Watch came to compile their report, 'Pushed Back, Pushed Around', they were forced to rely on the testimonies of ex-detainees. They found that the migrants returned from Italy to Libya mostly ended up in Kufra detention centre, deep in the desert near the Sudanese border. Ostensibly a state prison, it consists of a courtyard surrounded by 6 large detention rooms, each capable of holding more than 100 migrants. These rooms are windowless, with air holes in ceiling for ventilation. Everyone sleeps on the floor and, if you are lucky, you might share a filthy mattress. Detainees are only allowed outside once a day when guards conduct the prisoner count. There they can grab a breathe of fresh air and they often receive a beating too. The prison, like most other Libyan jails, has no medical staff.

There are also buildings at Kufra that are owned and run by people smugglers, who work hand in fist with the prison guards. They too wear uniforms and it is impossible for the migrants to tell guards and smugglers apart. Once in the hands of these smugglers, migrants have no option but to pay their captors the money for their passage to Italy or they end up dumped in desert to die.** Many migrants also end up coming back to Kufra in what seems like an endless round of 'pay the smugglers, get caught and returned to Kufra', only to have to pay up again. In some Libyan prisons migrants can bribed their guards to buy their freedom. The going rate is $1,000-$1,200, exactly the cost of the boat ride to Europe. In other prisons guards just sell their captives to the smugglers for as little as 30 Libyan dinars, about €18.

This picture is not untypical. In 2006, when Gabriele del Grande visited Misratah prison, 210 km east of Tripoli, he found more than 600 Eritrean asylum seekers, mostly between 20 to 30 years old, and including 58 women and several children and babies, crammed 20 to 4 by 5 metre room, again with no windows. Some detainees had been there for more than 2 years and none had seen a lawyer or the inside of a court.

Fully Culpable

And it is not as though the Italian authorities*** are in the dark about the fate of the migrants caught up in its 'push-back' operations. In 2005, the former director of the Italian secret service (SISDe), Prefect Mario Mori, informed the Italian Parliament that: "Undocumented migrants in Libya are caught like dogs” and that they are put in to prisons so overcrowded that “policemen must wear a dust mask on the mouth because of the nauseating odours". It is clear that the Italian government is fully cognisant of the conditions that it sends the migrants back to and of the fact that it is guilty of serious violations of international law relating to the refoulement**** of refugees.

* It is also not the first time that a 'push-back' policy has been operated by a European country. Italy and Malta have tried it in 2005 and 2006 respectively and it is routine for Greek coast guards to tow boats back to Turkish waters and to sink them there, forcing their passengers to swim ashore.
** Before the guards at Kufra discovered that they could sell the migrants to people smugglers, the migrants were often loaded into the converted container lorries used to transport migrants around Libya and taken out into the desert and dumped with little or no water.
*** Or any other European government, a number of whom have in recent years concluded prisoner transfer treaties.
**** The forced return of people to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a risk of torture.

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